- Associated Press - Monday, June 23, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Both U.S. Senate seats are on the ballot Tuesday during an unusually busy Oklahoma primary that reflects the GOP’s rise to power in a state Democrats controlled for nearly a century.

Most of the action is on the Republican side, and the uniqueness of picking nominees for both Senate seats at once for the first time in recent history could boost turnout.

This includes a fiercely competitive race for the seat left open by retiring Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who is stepping down with two years left on his six-year term amid a recurrence of cancer.

The race for Coburn’s seat includes a three-way Democratic primary and a seven-man race for the GOP nomination that includes two of Oklahoma’s rising Republican political stars: two-term U.S. Rep. James Lankford, 46, and former Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon, 36.

In the other U.S. Senate race, 79-year-old incumbent Republican Jim Inhofe faces four little-known challengers in the GOP primary. There is no Democratic primary in that race.

Gov. Mary Fallin, 59, faces a pair of pro-marijuana Republican challengers in her bid for a second term as the state’s chief executive, while Fallin’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs, faces no primary opposition.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. across the state. If no one candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote getters will advance to an Aug. 26 primary runoff to determine the nominee.

Because Oklahoma has a closed-primary system, only Republicans and Democrats vote to select their party’s nominee. Independents may get to vote in local races for judge or some county or municipal elections.

While primary elections, particularly on the GOP side, have historically drawn a more energized and politically active electorate, Republican pollster and longtime political strategist Pat McFerron says that is beginning to change as the number of registered Republicans increases in Oklahoma.

“(Primary and general election voters) are actually not as different as you’d think,” McFerron said. “When you talk about Republican primary voters, they are different but they’re becoming more and more like a general election as the party grows.”

While Republicans made up about 25 percent of the registered voters in Oklahoma in the 1980s, they are now nearly even with registered Democrats. The latest figures show 44.3 percent of Oklahoma voters are Democrats and 43.4 percent are Republicans, with 12.3 percent registered as independents.

Republican voters will decide two winner-take-all primary elections on Tuesday where no Democrats or independents filed for the seat. Former state Sen. Cliff Branan, 52, of Oklahoma City and former Oklahoma House Speaker Todd Hiett, 46, of Kellyville face off in the race for a six-year term on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. And Republican incumbent John Doak, 51, of Tulsa faces primary opponent Bill Viner, 61, of Moore.

Another heated battle for statewide office is the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, where Republican incumbent Janet Barresi faces two GOP primary challengers. Four Democrats also are vying for that post.

And Oklahoma voters in all but one congressional district will head to the polls to determine their party’s nominee to serve another two years in Congress. Freshman Republican Jim Bridenstine didn’t draw an opponent from either party this cycle in the 1st congressional district, but there will be Republican and Democratic primaries in the races for the 2nd, 4th and 5th congressional districts. The 5th district seat, left open by Lankford’s decision to run for the U.S. Senate, features three Democratic opponents and six Republican challengers seeking their party’s nomination.

In the sprawling 3rd Congressional District in western Oklahoma, there will only be a primary race for Republicans since just one Democrat filed for the seat. Republican U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, 54, is seeking his 11th term in office against two GOP challengers.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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