The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma saw its most engaged candidacy filing on record this week, and where residents chose to lodge strong competition revealed as much as where they didn’t.
About 800 hopeful residents filed for several state offices, including scores in the Senate and House of Representatives, and several in county district attorney races. Some positions drew six or eight candidates; one garnered nearly a dozen. However, some of the most prominent and in some cases highly criticized officials in the state drew little to no opposition.
Onlookers said much of the heightened activity could be attributed to the teacher walkout energizing the state, but that the lead-up and results of those demonstrations are not the only factors.
Oklahoma Policy Institute Executive Director David Blatt said the push to get more teachers and education supporters in office began years ago, and it was evident in 2016. Participation was high that year across the board. Until this year, 2016 held the record for candidate filing.
“I think that we are in the midst of a real upswing in citizen awareness and involvement,” Blatt said. “I think that goes back to before the last election, where we saw a real surge of candidates filing in 2016. I think we’re seeing a continuation of that.”
Pat McFerron, a founder of CMA Strategies, said increased involvement has been coming for a while. Pushback against President Donald Trump has been high among Democrats and other critics. That helped fuel many of the special election seat flips, which have also encouraged more Democrats to run. But that isn’t the only way Trump might have contributed to the increase. He might have also made politics more accessible to outsiders.
“He’s been signifying to a lot of people that the normal profile of a political candidate is no more,” he said. “I think that encourages some to run.”
Several Republican members of the Legislature have announced they will not seek re-election, but many of them did so in the past few weeks. That has included high-profile members such as state Rep. Josh Cockroft, R-Wanette, and state Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie.
Open seats tend to draw more candidates, but the late announcements from incumbents who decided against running again might have sparked a longer list of candidates, McFerron said. Residents often enter what seems like an informal pre-primary, and there has been less time for it.
“You’re calling around for four or five weeks seeing whose support you can get before you become a candidate,” he said. “That tends to winnow the crowd a little bit.”
McFerron also gave a nod to the teacher walkout and the experience it provided its participants at 23rd and Lincoln.
“When you have 30,000 people a day becoming familiar with the Capitol, and you have people cheering, more are going to run,” he said.
He noted that House Speaker Charles McCall’s only opponent is Ranae Ward, a special education teacher from Sulphur.
McCall saw more opposition in his race to retain his place as speaker than he is in this election. During that campaign, which took place behind closed doors early this legislative session, he saw four challengers.
Jackson Lisle, a founding partner of the Right Strategy Group, said it’s not surprising that McCall is seeing few competitors in this election. McCall is a good campaigner for most races, and this one is different.
“To take on a sitting speaker of the House would be a very daunting task,” he said. “It would be very difficult to try to take him out. Most people who know what they’re doing will say, ‘I’ll wait.’”
Another visible and controversial official, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, faces no opponent. The longtime prosecutor opposed State Questions 780 and 781, which reduced sentences for many drug- and property-related crimes down from a felony to a misdemeanor. As criminal justice reform takes the spotlight at the Capitol, many of the movement’s supporters have criticized Prater for his office’s sentencing practices.
Lisle said that Prater is a strong campaigner, which has placed him in an unlikely position: He’s a Democrat, and most elected county officials are Republicans.
One legislative race surpasses all others in terms of competitiveness: House District 82. It covers portions of Edmond and northwest Oklahoma City. State Rep. Kevin Calvey termed out, and a dozen contenders are fighting to take his place. Eleven candidates are Republicans.
McFerron and Lisle both pointed out that the district is one of the most affluent in the state, and that it’s possible residents there have more available resources to run for office. Lisle said Calvey has been controversial because of his anti-tax stance, which has angered many teachers and education officials.