- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Second-term Oklahoma congressman Markwayne Mullin raised the ire of conservatives when he refused to rule out seeking a fourth term in 2018 despite a campaign pledge to leave Washington after six years.

A day after Mullin handily won his primary for a third and supposed final term, he remained noncommittal, telling a Tulsa radio show host that even though his “mind hasn’t changed” about leaving Congress in 2018, he and his wife would continue to pray about what to do.

Campaign platforms that include self-imposed term limits have successfully propelled Republicans into Congress for decades in Oklahoma and became a cornerstone issue with scores of conservatives across the country. But some longer-serving politicians and voters are beginning to question whether limits could have a reverse effect: creating power vacuums in districts and increasing the difficulty for the state’s now all-GOP delegation to wield more power in Washington.

Term-limited lawmakers are now as commonplace as the long-serving ones once were in Oklahoma. Democrat Carl Albert served in Congress for 30 years and was speaker of the U.S. House from 1971-1976, earning him the nickname the “Little Giant from Little Dixie.”

If Mullin keeps the campaign pledge, he’ll be the second Oklahoma lawmaker to cede power in 2018 after fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who made the same campaign promise when he defeated a five-term congressman in 2012.

The departures make Oklahoma “ground zero” for the national debate over term limits, said Ken Hicks, head of the history and political science department at Rogers State University in Claremore in Mullin’s sprawling 2nd Congressional District.

“There’s a conflict within the Republican Party between people, I think, who are nihilists who just don’t want government at all, and there are people who kind of think, ‘Yeah we need some more government in there,’” Hicks said.

On Wednesday, the radio host asked why Mullin, a successful plumbing business owner, would consider returning to Washington.

“How are we not going to get the economy back on track? How are we actually going to do things about getting these bureaucrats under control if we elect people that’s never done it before?” Mullin said.

Mullin declined to talk about the issue to The Associated Press because he was on vacation, a spokesman said.

But if Mullin decides to run again, he could be opposed by the candidate he beat on Tuesday and reignite the debate over term limits.

“A man’s word is his honor and we the people need to know our elected leaders will deliver on their promises to the voters,” said Jarrin Jackson, a war veteran who had the support of GOP powerbroker and former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, who once held Mullin’s seat. “I will support Markwayne Mullin in his race against the Democrat in November, and I hope he will do the same for me if I decide to run again in 2018.”

Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a political heavyweight who has served in Congress for nearly as long Albert did, said Thursday that he’s “not shy” about his opinion that he doesn’t think “a term-limit pledge should be a requirement to run for office.” Inhofe’s time in Congress has earned him seniority on two powerful committees in the Senate, and the clout to author several transportation bills and keep funding for military installations in Oklahoma during several base realignment and closure rounds.

The idea of term-limiting lawmakers has even split some voters.

Fort Gibson resident Carol Corley, 70, was staunch in her support for limits after voting Tuesday, saying conservatives want to rotate politicians to keep “fresh ideas” flowing in Washington.

But Corley’s husband, Larry, seemed to disagree.

“I want the military built back up and I want our debt taken down,” Larry Corley, 72, said. “If someone could do those two things, I’d vote for them forever.”

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