Pat McFerron considers the transformation of Oklahoma politics

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 17-Aug-2010

Pat McFerron is a founding partner in CMA Strategies, a highly successful Oklahoma political consulting firm. He is also director of survey research for Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates.

One of the most experienced and successful players in the business of professional campaign and issues management, McFerron took time after the recent primary campaign to savor victories for CMA’s cluster of statewide Republican candidates: Todd Lamb for lieutenant governor, Janet Barresi for superintendent of public instruction, and Scott Pruitt for attorney general.

Additionally, McFerron’s longtime colleague, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, won reelection when he turned back a “Tea Party” conservative challenger. 

At the start of our interview, this writer reflected on the moment, just weeks ago, when the realization struck home that things had fundamentally changed in Oklahoma politics. It came when Elizabeth Donnelly, a Democrat, withdrew from the race against state Sen. Cliff Branan, an Oklahoma City Republican.

At that moment, as a result of prior candidate withdrawals, Democrats — the party that controlled the state Legislature for nearly a century — no longer had even a mathematical possibility of running the upper chamber after the November election.

Have there been similar moments, or a moment, for McFerron in recent years? He replied, “It hits me from time to time that when I tried to break into the business there were not a lot of opportunities for people to find good work helping conservative candidates. Now, the problem isn’t the opportunity for people breaking in, it is finding enough qualified people to fill the jobs that need to be done.”

McFerron told CapitolBeatOK, “It truly is an incredible time to be a conservative and a Republican in Oklahoma. I often think about this — every time I’m looking for a new campaign aide for a client or a friend.”

He continued, “There was a time, back in 2008, when I was looking through all the House races one by one. I realized that after the 2008 election, there were only 11 Republicans who had served in the minority in the state House.

“All of this certainly makes me reflective along the lines you suggest. In 1994, the big question after the election was whether or not there would be enough Republican strength to sustain the governor’s veto. There was strength that proved to be adequate to the task, and that was a pretty cohesive body of Republicans.

“It also amazes me to think this through: After this next election, Republicans might be on the verge of taking away the ability of an Democratic governor to sustain a veto. I look back at the years and it is gratifying to see where we are.”

So, the question was posed: Is there any chance that Republicans could blow it in the November elections?

McFerron replied, “There absolutely is. If you look at recent history there is little room for ‘give’ or mistakes in the governor’s race. It’s kind of interesting because voters make a more personal decision – as opposed to a partisan one — with the larger races, where personality seems to make a difference. 

“And, any time decisions are made on personality rather than ideology or partisanship, you have a greater opportunity for a pendulum swing. It’s important the Fallin campaign run an aggressive campaign, and I have no doubt they will.”

McFerron continued, “The further away an office is, the more voters seem to be personally invested in it, like president and governor. In those races, personal feelings come more into play. With U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, for instance, people just have a strong sense that he is ‘our guy’ and they are going to back him no matter what.”

He continued, “I will say this. I believe Republicans are going to be very strong in Oklahoma this year. And, the more the races in Oklahoma are nationalized, the more the Democrats have to be worried.”

McFerron has worked in his share of bipartisan coalitions, especially in issue campaigns. He understands diverse motivations and aspirations, although his own dreams are conservative and pro-business. He was a key player in two historic 2001 campaigns, the statewide right-to-work referendum and the MAPS for Kids referenda in Oklahoma City.

Despite the intensely practical political arena where he has gained so much success, McFerron has a notable academic bent, including precision in his dissection and presentation of conflicting points of view. A William Randolph Hearst scholar, he graduated with high honors from Oklahoma City University, where he was student body president, and did graduate studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

Reflecting on themes already apparent in messaging for hopefuls running on the state Democratic ticket in 2010, he said, “Democrats will try to emphasize that their statewide candidates are from ‘everywhere,’ that is Ada, Duncan, Antlers, and so forth. They’ll slap at the Republicans and say they’re all just from the cities. Their desire will be to keep the races and the focus local and not national, and hope that helps stem the tide.”

Asked to share the secret or secrets to his success as a consultant, and to sketch what he believes is the role of political professionals is in modern campaigns, McFerron reflected, “Well, a key to being successful is to take each race on its own. Cookie cutter approaches do not work. It’s true that there are some repetitive or repeated functions that can work. That seems to be a little more the case in legislative races, but still creativity is essential, and helping each candidate project her or his strength.”

He said, “The job of a good political consultant is, without a doubt, to convey the essence of the candidate in a way that voters can accept. If you try to massage that person or their message too much, the voters will see through it. Authenticity is critical, both for the candidate and the political professional trying to help them.”

McFerron concluded, “I’d say another role for the political professional that is really important is to provide important historical perspective, to help candidates understand themselves in a broader context or sweep of history.”