COMMENTARY Role Reversal: Rise of the Republicans, Retreat of the Democrats
Published: June 15th, 2013
OKLAHOMA CITY – In the 1960 presidential election, Oklahoma remained – as it had been since statehood in 1907, a Democratic bastion. By 1992, however, the state had become reliably Republican in presidential races, and competitive in federal elections.
In those days, Democrats still controlled the Legislature. But as the website Ballotpedia
documented in a recent study, from 1994 on Oklahoma transformed completely, becoming what some deem “the reddest of the red states.”
In 1994, Tulsan Frank Keating — former high-ranking appointee in the Reagan and first Bush presidencies — was the Republican nominee for governor of Oklahoma.
Democrats had nominated Jack Mildren, pioneer of the “wishbone” formation in his OU college football days, to succeed embattled Gov. David Walters. Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Wes Watkins also sought the job – as an independent.
U.S. Rep. Jim Inhofe was underdog challenger for the U.S. Senate seat legendary Democrat David Boren vacated to become president of the University of Oklahoma. Few analysts gave Inhofe a chance against U.S. Rep. Dave McCurdy, a Boren-style Democrat.
Inhofe had won and lost elections. He liked winning better, and played hardball every step of the way against McCurdy.
The real story of 1994 began months before, when longtime western Oklahoma Democratic Congressman Glenn English resigned to take a lobbying job. Two conservatives – attorney Dan Webber from Oklahoma City, a Democrat who had worked for Boren, and state Rep. Frank Lucas, a Republican legislator from Cheyenne – squared off in a special election.
Webber’s problem? He was a Democrat, and Bill Clinton was president. Lucas won handily on March 8. It was a precursor of the Republican surge to seize the U.S. House that November. Lucas is still in Congress nearly 20 years later.
All summer, Inhofe’s campaign emphasized “God, Guns and Gays” — as in, he was for the first two and against expanded rights for the latter. Clinton’s controversies intensified, Democratic hopes collapsed.
Keating kept the Republican base vote, garnering 46.9 percent support. Independent Watkins ran well in “Little Dixie” (southeast Oklahoma), getting 23.5 percent statewide, for the best Independent showing in state history. Mildren, in the same party as Bill Clinton, managed 30 percent, and Keating was elected.
Down ticket, Republicans had impressive winners – Mary Fallin as lieutenant governor, first woman ever to hold the job, and Brenda Reneau as Labor Commissioner, first woman and first Republican ever elected to that job. Bob Anthony – Oklahoma’s first-ever Republican Corporation Commissioner – was the top vote-getter among the state-level GOP candidates.
As for the U.S. Senate, Inhofe got 55 percent to win.
In U.S. House races, only Democrat incumbent Bill Brewster won. Lucas cruised in his reelection, as Ernest Istook won easily in Oklahoma City. Former NFL flanker Steve Largent won the Tulsa seat; J.C. Watts grabbed McCurdy’s congressional job; and Dr. Tom Coburn succeeded to the position previously held by the most liberal member of the Oklahoma delegation – Mike Synar.
Oklahoma Republicans suddenly had a 7-1 advantage in D.C. As for the state Legislature, Democrats still had the edge, but the Republican tide was rising.
In one election, everything had changed. Never again would an Oklahoma Democrat seeking office for the first time have a presumption of victory.
In 1996, Watkins, who had served 20 years in Congress as a Democrat, won his old seat – as a Republican — and the delegation was completely in the hands of the GOP. You might say the rout was on, yet Democrats held their own in legislative races that year, before a slow erosion recommenced in 1998.
In ’98, Keating sailed to an easy win. Reneau topped the ticket in raw votes, Fallin dominated her Democratic foe, and Corporation Commissioner Denise Bode – former Democrat and a new star for the GOP – won easily.
In 2000, Texas Gov. George W. Bush sailed to a methodical presidential win in Oklahoma, as Republicans defeated three Democratic Senators who had opposed considering a right-to-work proposal. Keating demanded the Legislature permit “the right to vote on right to work, right now.”
As Senate president – a rarely exercised power – Lt. Gov. Fallin took the gavel (as Reneau had long encouraged) to force a right-to-work referendum. Marc Nuttle, an Oklahoman experienced in national campaigns, quarterbacked a broad coalition to push the measure onto the ballot.
Nuttle’s strategy — emphasizing freedom over security — carried the day, with 54 percent in a special November September 2001 vote. Once litigation ended, popular approval of right to work ended the outsized power of unions in Oklahoma politics.
In 2002, moderate Democrat state Sen. Brad Henry’s old school “ground game” won a three-way gubernatorial race. He edged out Rep. Largent, with former Republican Independent Gary Richardson eroding Largent’s base.
In 2004, the state House finally fell to Republicans, and Dr. Coburn, after a break from politics, returned to public life as Sen. Coburn, with an overwhelming victory over a Democratic congressman.
Come 2006, Democrats not only staved off the GOP push for Senate control, but beat every statewide Republican candidate except Anthony. Labor’s Reneau lost the second closest election in state history in what turned out to be the last bad year for Republicans.
For Oklahoma Democrats, it was the last hurrah. In 2008, Republicans secured a Senate tie. Henry worked with Republicans on many issues, including tax cuts, but vetoed some of their social agenda. Sen. Glenn Coffee became co-President Pro Temp during the “tie”, then the first GOP pro temp ever.
In November 2010, Henry termed-out, and Fallin came home from Congress as the nominee for Governor. Republicans won every state post, strengthened a House majority, and assumed legislative control for the first time in Oklahoma’s 103-year history.
In January 2011, when Fallin and colleagues were sworn in on the south steps of the Oklahoma Capitol, the era of “first-ever” Republicans in this or that office was over.
Republicans had what Ballotpedia dubbed “a Trifecta” (the governor’s office, and both chambers of the Legislature).
It was their turn, like Democrats a Century before, to govern as they saw fit. That’s when things got challenging.