The race between incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe and Democrat challenger Abby Broyles is one of contrasts.
Inhofe, in what will surely be his final run for office, is 86, and, should he win in November, would be in his nineties by the time his seat will again be up for election.
Broyles will turn 31 the day before the election.
Inhofe is representative of Oklahoma’s conservative old guard, loyal to a brand of politics that’s battle tested in the state. Broyles would represent a dramatic departure from Inhofe’s politics. She’s progressive, with calls to decriminalize marijuana, reform policing, and address climate change.
Inhofe was first elected to public office in 1967 and has held a position in government ever since. Broyles, who was born 22 years after Inhofe’s first election, is running for office for the first time, having left behind a career in television and a burgeoning legal career to attempt something many have tried and none have accomplished — taking down The Mountain.
“There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the two of us,” Broyles told The Frontier during a recent interview.
Carol Mowdy Bond had a problem.
A reporter for the Yukon Progress newspaper, she had been reporting on damage to gravestones, some of which date back to the 1800s, and the destruction of an historic building at Fort Reno in El Reno.
But, she said, when she would ask the local United States Department of Agriculture officials for comment — the USDA manages Fort Reno — she would be referred to a national spokesperson. The national spokesperson would refer her back to the locals.
And round and round she would go.
So, here she was, standing in the shade one recent Tuesday listening to Sen. Jim Inhofe ask the local USDA officials about the building, which had apparently been torn down without much word to the public. The USDA, which took over Fort Reno in the 1940s, answers to Congress. Bond eventually spoke up and elaborated on her problem of getting to the bottom of what exactly happened to the building and how many gravestones were damaged.
Inhofe, who had only limited time during his visit to Fort Reno, interjected, pulled Bond aside and said “Next week, when I’m back in Washington, we’ll get you on a call with the USDA folks and get all your questions answered.”
Over the years Inhofe has become something of a boogeyman to Oklahoma Democrats, who say he’s been in Congress too long, or that he’s too old and too out of touch to represent modern Oklahomans. Or, more recently, that he’s too much in lockstep with President Donald Trump.
But, Inhofe, who will turn 86 in November, also has a lighter touch. His campaign sent other examples, such as a mold issue in military housing that was brought to his attention that led to Inhofe launching an investigation and legislation, or the massive Tar Creek cleanup.
That day at Fort Reno, Inhofe had less than an hour at the site before flying off to visit Durant, Shawnee and Guymon. When reporters asked where he was campaigning in Guymon, Inhofe replied “I’m not campaigning, I’m working.”
But of course Inhofe is not without his controversies.
In 2015 Inhofe, the chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee brought a snowball to the Senate floor in a stunt aimed at disproving climate change. (Then-President Barack Obama called it “disturbing.”)
In 2018 he was criticized for purchasing between $50,001 and $100,000 dollars of stock in Raytheon, a major defense contractor that had received billions of dollars in Pentagon contracts. Inhofe’s stock purchases in the company were timed just after he had helped lobby the Trump administration to increase military spending.
At the time Inhofe offered the same explanation for the stock purchase, saying he was “not consulted or involved” in stock transactions. He said at the time he took “immediate action” to reverse the stock purchase after he became aware of it.
Earlier this year Inhofe again came under fire after some stock sales drew scrutiny following a New York Times report there had been a previously undisclosed private Senate briefing about the seriousness of the coronavirus in late January. Finance disclosures showed Inhofe sold between $230,006 and $500,000 worth of stock in five separate companies in the days and weeks following the meeting, which he said he did not attend.
The stock sales saved Inhofe between $68,624 and $136,289, according to a Frontier analysis.
And in early March, as the coronavirus pandemic was first taking hold in the United States, Inhofe downplayed the threat of the virus, offering to “shake hands” with a reporter who asked the senator what safeguards he was taking to protect himself from COVID-19.
But, despite all that, Inhofe is considered the favorite going into the Nov. 3 general election, where he faces Broyles, Libertarian Robert Murphy and Independents Joan Farr and April Nesbit.
Polling in September showed Inhofe with a 16-point lead (46 percent to 30 percent) over Broyles, with 20 percent undecided. Inhofe’s lead grew during a more recent poll, which showed his lead had grown to 20 points.
Broyles has challenged Inhofe to multiple debates this year, and Inhofe has turned all of them down.
“Everyone knows where I am on every conceivable issue. I have four opponents, and I don’t know where any one of them is on any issue, and they won’t talk about it,” Inhofe said last week, even though Broyles proposed as many as two dozen debates between the two.
“So long as you guys are not going to talk about where you stand, there’s no reason for us to be together. All you’ll say is … things that aren’t true.”
“(Broyles) has said several things that aren’t true. I’ve made it very clear, either come clean or just get your own crowd.”
It’s not easy whittling away at a longtime incumbent as a part of Oklahoma’s minority party. Especially when the incumbent won’t debate you. Especially when the coronavirus pandemic halted most of your in-person campaigning.
“It seems like a lifetime ago, thinking back to January and February, when I was out campaigning,” Broyles said during a recent interview. “It was tough. Like every business we had to shut down there for a while. I’ve still been on the phone 40 hours a week doing fundraising calls, that hasn’t changed, but it has taken away my ability to really get out and meet voters.”
Broyles said she thinks Inhofe’s refusal to debate, and his aggressive commercials in which he’s called her “not (an) Oklahoman” and told her to “try California,” have “backfired.”
“The tone of it is turning people off,” Broyles said. “People here tell me they want to put food on the table, send their kids to college, and have healthcare. They’re tired of the gridlock in D.C.”
But are they really? While polling shows Inhofe’s lead solidifying as we get closer to election day, Broyles campaign has called the polling “bs.”
For Broyles, the election represents an existential question for Oklahoma: Who are we and where are we headed?
“Elections are about choices,” Broyles said. “Do we want more of the same? Do we want to be at the bottom of the list in health, and education? Or do we want to try something new?”
Broyles said she’s focusing on the Tulsa area during the tail end of campaigning season, but that she’s divided her time pretty equally over the course of the year between rural and urban Oklahoma.
“I’ve been talking a lot about rural broadband, about how it would give farmers more independence,” she said. “And we saw first hand talking to parents and teachers what happened this spring with distance learning. It’s really tough. If you don’t have internet, how do you do your school work?”
But she thinks the state’s residents, no matter where they live, have more in common than they realize.
“Really the biggest thing I hear about is healthcare,” she said.
Inhofe voted earlier this week in favor of Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative judge, to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. Many believe the court, which now has a decided lean to the right, will quickly act to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“People with preexisting conditions are afraid they’ll lose their protections if the ACA is repealed,” Broyles said.
And, she said, maybe Inhofe just doesn’t “have it” anymore.
She outraised Inhofe in the last fundraising cycle, bringing in nearly a million dollars to help her put on a last-second push.
“What new ideas does (Inhofe) have in 2020 that he didn’t have five years ago, or 10 years ago?” she asked. “It’s time for someone new, some new line of thinking that we haven’t had here in office before.”