- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 7, 2014

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) - Not surprisingly, the Republican and Democratic nominees for Oklahoma’s open U.S. Senate seat staked out opposing positions Tuesday on issues including the legalization of marijuana during their first debate ahead of the Nov. 4 general election.

But Republican U.S. Rep. James Lankford of Edmond and Democratic state Sen. Connie Johnson of Oklahoma City also found common ground on issues such as income inequality, freedom of religion and the need for less partisanship in Washington, D.C., when they squared off in the cordial debate at the Oklahoma State University campus in Stillwater.

Lankford, 46, a two-term U.S. congressman and a staunch conservative, is a heavy favorite to win the open U.S. Senate seat that Republican Dr. Tom Coburn is vacating early. Although Democrats have a slight edge over Republicans in voter registration in Oklahoma, the state has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since David Boren in 1978.

Tuesday’s debate inside the OSU Student Union theater drew a crowd of about 150 people.

Johnson, 62, a leading liberal voice during her 10-year career in the state Senate, emphasized education and wage inequality, and her traditional Democratic positions in support of gay marriage, abortion rights for women and the legalization of marijuana.

“I have been a legislator who has promoted the reform of our marijuana laws,” said Johnson, who has pushed this year for ballot measures for both medicinal marijuana and full legalization of cannabis. She said Oklahoma is a state that could benefit financially from legalization said marijuana prohibition has led to gang violence and overcrowded prisons.

“It didn’t work with alcohol and it’s not working with marijuana,” she said.

But Lankford said Democratic leaders in states that have legalized marijuana are beginning to rethink that policy and that he would have a hard time supporting such a move.

“I just don’t think that’s the best thing we can do for our kids,” Lankford said.

Despite his two terms in Congress, Lankford emphasized his background as a Baptist minister and painted himself as a Washington outsider who is willing to reach across party lines to find solutions to problems such as the national debt and a Social Security system heading toward insolvency.

“I’ve tried to reset the tone and reset the example of how we pay respect to each other, even when we disagree,” Lankford said.

Lankford has been a rising star in the U.S. House during his first two terms in office, capturing coveted positions on powerful committees and a leadership position as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.

Evan Woodson, 23, a graduate student from Owasso, said he’s inclined to vote for Johnson because of her emphasis on education and more moderate positions on social issues, but said he was also impressed with Lankford’s grasp of the issues.

“Lankford is an impressive, impressive speaker,” Woodson said. “I also think he represents ideologically where most Oklahomans stand on various issues.”

Because Coburn is leaving his seat early, whoever wins the election in November will have to run again in 2016. It is also the first time since statehood that both of Oklahoma’s U.S. Senate seats will be on the general election ballot. Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe is seeking a full six-year term against Democratic nominee Matt Silverstein, a financial planner from Bixby.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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