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Oklahoma Voters Consider Another Switch in House Delegation

Navy pilot Jim Bridenstine pulled off a congressional upset four years ago when he ousted a five-term GOP incumbent from his Tulsa-area seat. The same year, Markwayne Mullin, a Republican plumber, won over thousands of Little Dixie voters in his southeastern Oklahoma district when Democrat Dan Boren left office.

And two years ago, Republican Steve Russell, a war hero whose unit helped capture Saddam Hussein, became central Oklahoma's third different congressman since 2007, replacing James Lankford, who sought and won the Senate seat when Tom Coburn retired.

All five Republicans who make up Oklahoma's U.S. House delegation have drawn primary challenges ahead of Tuesday's elections. Although two long-term congressmen have easily dispatched opponents over the years, Bridenstine, Mullin and Russell are still relative newcomers on the scene.

The state Election Board said at least 7,100 people cast ballots Thursday on the first day of early voting.

Those challenging Mullin and Russell say their votes for a $1 trillion spending bill last December double-crossed true conservatives who put them in office. One of Bridenstine's challengers, Tom Atkinson, says the incumbent is "insular" and appears focused on a future political race, such as senator or governor.

In Bridenstine's solidly red district in northeastern Oklahoma, Atkinson, an independent oilman, says his opponent isn't interested in building consensus with Democrats and moderates to achieve common goals.

"You're looking for a room full of people who will give you a room full of what you want," Atkinson said.

Bridenstine disputes the criticism and says he has worked with several Democrats to draft bills protecting the safety of Israel, standing up to Iran or developing state of the art weather forecasting equipment. And as far as looking for other offices, Bridenstine said he had "no future political plans at this point."

Also in the race is librarian Evelyn Rogers, whose campaign is focused on getting rid of the Affordable Care Act. Rogers, in a series of text messages with the AP, faulted Oklahoma's entire GOP delegation, rookie or not, for failing to repeal the nation's health care law.

"Current Oklahoma representatives have not gotten a bill passed to repeal or replace Obamacare," she said. "That is a high-level priority for me when I get in Congress."

If no one wins a majority of the votes in Tuesday's primary, the two candidates who receive the most votes will advance to a runoff in August. Whoever emerges will face Libertarian David Matthew Hullum in the fall.

Farther south, through the meandering backwoods of Oklahoma's 2nd Congressional District, many of Mullin's detractors say his support for a $1 trillion spending bill is one reason he can't be trusted with a third term. Opponent Jarrin Jackson, a war veteran, claims Mullin isn't conservative enough for the district.

"These campaign centrists who have been in charge for a great while have gotten us into this mess we're in," Jackson said.

Mullin said he handled the massive vote like a businessmen. There were things in it he didn't care for - such as leaving the funding mechanism for the Affordable Care Act - but if he would've voted against the whole bill, that would have meant cuts to the military - a key constituency in his district.

Mullin has the support of U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, but Coburn is backing Jackson.

The winner between Mullin and Jackson will face either Paul E. Schiefelbein or Joshua Harris-Till, who are seeking the Democratic nomination, and John McCarthy, running as an independent.

In central Oklahoma, Russell is catching much of the same flak as Mullin from his challenger over the spending bill vote. Retired naval commander Frank Volpe said Russell failed in his mission to reduce the size and scope of the federal government.

"I expected more of a conservative fighter," Volpe said.

Russell called Volpe and others "naive" to think that eliminating a massive program like the Affordable Care Act can be overturned with one vote, and criticized candidates who go to Washington just to be contrarian.

"If all you vote is vote 'No,' then why are you there?' Russell said. "Can't you guys sit down and discuss this and get something done?"

The Republican nominee from central Oklahoma will face either Tom Guild or Al McAffrey or Leona Leonard, who are seeking the Democratic nomination, plus Libertarian Zachary Knight.

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