By Brooklyn Wayland
The pendulum swings back and forth.
Until 2005, the Oklahoma Legislature was controlled by the Democrats. In 2009, the Senate joined in on Republican rule. The Republican lead continued to grow and in 2011, the entire Oklahoma Legislature, from the governor’s office to the House and Senate, was Republican-held. While it was a blue state primarily until the 2000s, as pendulum politics would suggest, it swings both ways. Since then and to this day, the Oklahoma Legislature is primarily Republican.
Will the pendulum be swinging back any time soon? Michael Crespin, director and curator of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center and professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, doesn’t believe so. He doesn’t believe that will be seen for some time. Oklahoma is a red state and it will continue to be for a long time. However, we have seen more urban counties starting to be a little purple.
“We are beginning to look like every other state,” said Patrick Hall, former leader of the Oklahoma Democratic Party. “For so long, the Oklahoma Democratic Party was a rural-based party, and now it is primarily urban-based.”
It was this switch that Hall would call, “the resurrection of the Democratic Party.”
When term limits nearly wiped out the party in Oklahoma, Democrats worried they would not recover. However, reaction to the election of Donald Trump as president helped to rebuild the party, bringing it into the urban areas and counties; specifically, Oklahoma, Tulsa, Comanche and Cleveland county have led the charge, which are home to the eight largest cities in the state of Oklahoma.
In 2008, Keith Gaddie, professor at OU who specializes in Southern politics, recalls the small Democratic victory in Oklahoma City when Obama was elected president in 2008. Although a small victory of only the city, he says it’s an example of the Democratic party shifting to be a urban-based party.
Still the minority party in Oklahoma, even with a little purple sneaking into urban areas like Oklahoma County, running as a Democrat in an intensely red state is still a difficult task. Hall said that Democrats have to inherently work harder: The Oklahoma leadership backs Republicans without fail.
Still there have been a few Democrats who have pushed through and won a seat in Oklahoma. One example is Jacob Rosecrants, a middle school teacher, who started his campaign in a primarily Republican district with $300 and no campaign experience. It didn’t matter though. Rosecrants had a message, and he was ready to share it.
“It was just me having a message that people agreed with,” Rosecrants said.
Rosecrants started his grassroots campaign for the house seat in Oklahoma House District 46. This district usually voted 60 percent Republican, and as a Democrat, Rosecrants knew he had his work cut out for him.
Name recognition was key. He spent hours knocking on doors and listening to voters. It also helped that many Oklahomans were ready for change. They wanted an outsider like Rosecrants, who took an interest in issues they were passionate about.
“The people in my district wanted an outsider, and they wanted someone who cared about the issues they cared about,” Rosecrants said.
It just so happened in 2016 in Oklahoma everyone cared about public education.
This helped Rosecrants as well considering he was a public school educator.
“The Republicans here (in Oklahoma) are fiscally conservative,” Rosecrants said. “But, I would say, they are socially liberal.”
It is because of this that he says he doesn’t need to go into any situation clinging to his party identification. Rather, he just goes in as the representative who wants to hear from his constituency. This resonated with voters and in a special election in 2017, won him the seat as representative for Oklahoma House District 46.
“The more liberal-leaning the U.S. gets, the more red these Southern states, especially in these rural areas,” Rosecrants said. “I think it had to do a lot with Trump; they really like his message of “I’m an outsider.”
Gaddie agrees. Rural areas have always been conservative although they weren’t always Republican.
“The more liberal and the stronger the national Democrats get, the more intensely the rural whites have doubled down, grasping conservative values,” Gaddie said. “That is the foundation of American culture.”
Still, a good Democratic candidate with an exceptional campaign can beat an unexpecting incumbent. Kendra Horn proved that by winning House District 5 in Oklahoma in 2018. Sticking to those bread and butter issues like lowering prescription drug costs and military spending, Horn was able to win over the constituency in House District 5 against Steve Russell.
Gaddie said anyone who tells you they saw that coming is lying. It wasn’t until late in the game anyone thought she could do it. She went against a Republican incumbent who didn’t believe he needed to think twice about her. This led to her election despite being in a still primarily red (but more purple than most) district. The Oklahoma State Election Board recorded only 37.91% Democrat in District 5.
“Voter identification doesn’t determine vote choice,” Gaddie said. There was a certain crossover appeal when it came to Horn’s campaign. Horn simply caught her opponent flat-footed and appealed to voters.”
This, and some shift toward a more moderate Legislature, may be the only shift of the pendulum seen in Oklahoma in a while.
Rosecrants sees the Republicans in office as much more moderate than in the past which is a great reflection of the average Oklahoma voter. One could infer this is the slight shift of the pendulum.
Emily Virgin, representative for Oklahoma House District 44 and minority party leader in the House of Representatives, believes this is exactly what Oklahoma voters are looking for now.
“I think voters are tired of this extreme partisanship, and I think that has been a good thing for the state,” Virgin said.
People across the state are beginning to see when it comes to these big ticket policy items, such as affordable and accessible health care and proper educational funding, they all are on the same page.
Virgin mentioned in the past six years or so Oklahomans have proven to be somewhat progressive or at least moderate when it comes to some state questions such as Oklahoma State Question 788, the Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative.
She believes we will see this again in the next election cycle, pushing toward an even more moderate Legislature. This makes sense keeping the idea of the pendulum eventually swinging back toward and more moderate and maybe even a blue state over a long period of time, as Virgin believes is only natural.
Both Virgin and Rosecrants agree when running for office in Oklahoma, the central questions are not party identification; rather, they are more about the issues Oklahomans care about most.
“It is all about meeting people where they’re at,” Virgin said.
That is exactly what successful Republican and Democrat politicians in Oklahoma are doing.
Throughout Oklahoma history, it has been a primarily red state, and while we may not see a drastic change to a blue state any time soon as Gaddie, Hall and Crespin all believe, we have seen evolution, but we haven’t seen enough to enact real change or believe running as a Democrat in a primarily red state is any easy task.
The future is still unknown when it comes to Oklahoma politics, but any pendulum swings back and forth; it’s just a matter of pace.