Oklahoma Democrats Face Uphill Battle To Be Competitive In State Politics Again

U.S. Congresswoman Kendra Horn

Republicans strengthened their hold on the state’s politics this election cycle, flipping the only Democratic-held seat in Oklahoma’s congressional delegation back to red and making gains in the state House. But for Democrats to be competitive in Oklahoma again, they will have to fight a steep, uphill battle.

“>Over the past decade, Democrats have steadily lost influence in most election cycles. The trend continued this year as Rep. Kendra Horn, the first Democrat to win Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District in over 40 years, lost reelection to Republican state Senator Stephanie Bice.

Michael Crespin, director and curator of the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma, said it will be difficult for Democrats to turn the district blue again in 2022 since it’s usually harder for the president’s party to do well in midterms, and the state Legislature will begin the redistricting process next year.

“The Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers and control the governor’s seat so they can draw whatever maps they want,” Crespin said. “And so they’ll try to, I’m sure, make that seat a little safer for Rep. Bice. So I think the district’s going to look different. If it’s going to flip back, it’s going to be hard.”

Oklahoma Democrats also took a hit in the state Legislature. Republicans gained five seats in the house, extending their majority over Democrats to 82-19. Democrats lost three of their four rural house seats, widening the divide between Democrats and rural Oklahoma.

But it wasn’t always this way. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, said urban areas in the state used to be dominated by Republicans while rural Oklahoma was firmly Democrat.

“What you see now is a total flip where Tulsa and Oklahoma counties are generally voting strong Democrat. Rural Oklahoma is solidly Republican,” Blackburn said. “And so it’s like turning the political landscape on its head.”

Kenneth Corn, a former Democratic state legislator from rural-southeast Oklahoma, witnessed this shift. Democrats had a supermajority in both chambers when he was first elected in the late 1990s, but Republicans became the majority party in the state legislature by the time he hit his term limit in 2010.

As national politics started to play a bigger role in local races, Corn said Oklahoma Democrats have been a victim of what’s taken place in the National Democratic Party, which has moved left. He said even though some Democratic leaders in the state are progressives, he thinks by and large, Democrats in Oklahoma lean more conservative and moderate. But Corn said special interest groups have used wedge issues, such as abortion and gun ownership, to innacruatly portray state Democrats as being out of step with Oklahoma voters.

“Rural Democrats typically have the same values they’ve always had,” Corn said. “I represented a district for 12 years. I would get reelected with somewhere around 80% of the vote. My positions haven’t changed any, and I don’t think that I could win that district now simply because I have a D behind my name. Nothing to do with the positions I took on issues.”

But the power rural areas in Oklahoma currently have in the state Legislature will likely diminish overtime as rural areas shed population, said political scientist Keith Gaddie.

“We’re a couple of presidential election cycles away from the Democrats coming back and being competitive…” Gaddie said. “So as the electorate becomes more diverse and more urban, the Democrats will gain ground. But picking up ground in the rural areas, I don’t know if it ever comes back.”

Corn said the path forward for Democratic candidates in Oklahoma is to wage long campaigns, avoid being defined by the opposition and develop thoughtful messaging. He said the party should also develop a bench of candidates who are willing to be on the ballot more than once.

“And what the Republicans did really well in Oklahoma was they started running people for the school board and running people for city council, running people for boards that are by and large nonpartisan,” Corn said. “And so it became easy because people had grown accustomed to voting for them in lower offices. And those individuals then sought state offices in its place.”

Chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party Alicia Andrews said state Democrats should continue to run diverse candidates who reflect their communities such as Democrat Mauree Turner, who won the race for state House District 88 in Oklahoma City and became the first Muslim lawmaker in the state and the first openly nonbinary state legilator in the U.S.

“The Republicans worked a long term plan to flip us from blue to red, and it’s going to take a long term plan to flip us back to blue, and that’s what we’re working,” Andrews said.

Such a long term plan, at this point, isn’t clear.

This report was produced by Katelyn Howard for Oklahoma Engaged, an election project by NPR member stations in Oklahoma supported by the Inasmuch Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation, and Oklahoma Humanities.