Rise of the OK Republicans: Getting started
Published: June 12th, 2013
OKLAHOMA CITY — Once upon a time, Oklahoma was among the most reliably Democratic states in America. After statehood in 1907, Democrats controlled all state institutions for more than half a century, and ran the Legislature for nearly 100 years.
Well into the 1990s, Oklahoma was still a competitive state in elections below the federal level. As recently as 2006, even as Republicans began to secure legislative control, Democrats actually won a majority of competitive statewide races.
That blip of success for the party of Jefferson belied a transformation that had began in the 1960s, accelerated in the Reagan years (1980-88) and led to Republican control of the Legislature since 2008. Then, GOP dominance became complete with the 2010 election, when Republicans comfortably won every statewide race. By 2012, Oklahoma was among the reddest of the red states.
A national website, Ballotpedia, looking at a variety of factors, listed Oklahoma as among four states (the others are Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee) with net partisan shifts of 20 to 40 percent in the Republican direction over the past 22 years. Only five states (Texas, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Missouri) had more dramatic (40 percent plus) shifts toward the GOP.
Bottom line: Oklahoma is among the top nine states in net shift toward the party of Lincoln in the past two decades.
Public policy issues, including cultural or social controversies, national defense policy and arguments over federal power drove the transformation. Of course, the story played itself out through individual campaigns.
Here is the Reader’s Digest version of the story before 1992, when the Ballotpedia study commenced.
While some analysts might assign primary credit for the Republican surge to a handful of historic figures – including President Ronald Reagan and Henry Bellmon, the first Republican governor and U.S. Senator in state history – the truth is more subtle and intriguing. Still, there is no doubt that Bellmon got it started.
He shredded Oklahoma’s political fabric when he ran a masterful grass roots campaign, defeating Democratic nominee Bill Atkinson to become the first GOP governor in Oklahoma history.
Bellmon would go on to serve two terms as U.S. Senator, then a second term as governor 1987-1991. By the end of his career, the moderate-leaning old school Republican was on many issues to the Left of most other elected Republicans.
Dewey Bartlett – a Republican, Bellmon’s friend and gubernatorial successor in 1966 as the first Catholic governor in state history – lost his bid for a second term as chief executive in 1970.
In 1972, when he ran for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Fred Harris, Bartlett faced U.S. Rep. Ed Edmondson, a moderate Democrat from one of the state’s most storied Democratic families.
Bartlett, an affable foursquare conservative, effectively “nationalized” the campaign, lumping Edmondson with Ted Kennedy, former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris (who had evolved from election as a conservative Democrat to some of the most liberal views of any elected official in America) and presidential nominee George McGovern.
The GOP campaign slogan, two cycles in a row, was effective: “Like Ed, like Ted, like Fred … by George.” Bartlett won narrowly. Two years later, Edmondson lost narrowly again – this time against Bellmon, who won a second Senate term.
That same year, 1974, brought another watershed in a federal election. Former newspaperman Mickey Edwards ran a strong multi-issue conservative libertarian campaign for the GOP nomination. A “Reaganite” before there were Reaganites, he edged businessman G.T. Blankenship for the nomination, then gave incumbent Democrat Congressman John Jarman the first serious race of his long career.
After narrowly gaining reelection, Jarman switched registration in a White House ceremony with his friend Gerald Ford – and announced he would not seek again. In 1976, even while facing bitter denunciations in editorials by The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, Edwards won the party nod, and the general election.
Also in 1976, the state GOP sent a unified pro-Reagan delegation to the national convention, denying even Bellmon a voting seat because he supported Ford.
Later, Democrats in the district nominated a former Ku Klux Klansman. Edwards gained more than half of the black vote in Oklahoma City, and sailed to easy reelection. He was not seriously challenged until he got wrapped up in the House banking scandal of 1992, after a sea of Republicans challenged him.
Winner of that 1992 primary battle, Ernest Istook, went on to narrowly defeat a credible Democratic nominee, Laurie Williams. Ever since, Republicans have won every congressional election in central Oklahoma comfortably.
The party has brought forth a series of candidates who came to dominate their elections, including former U.S. Sen. Don Nickles, who took Bellmon’s spot in the Senate in 1980, and former Corporation Commissioner and U.S. Rep J.C. Watts, the first African-American statewide elected official in state history.
The Sooner State steadily transformed into a reliably Republican bastion in presidential races, with the GOP carrying the state’s Electoral votes every four years since 1968.
The election of 1994, with Jim Inhofe and Frank Keating atop the ticket, might have been the most significant of the modern era. That’s the focus of the next installment.