Jul 1, 2018
In the past two years, Oklahoma voters have made alcohol and medical marijuana more readily available, reformed criminal justice procedures, reaffirmed a state constitutional ban on using state resources for religious purposes and turned away nine incumbent Republican lawmakers in their own party’s primaries.
Clearly, something is going on.
Mostly, it seems the policy points that carried Oklahoma Republicans to power over the last quarter-century aren’t working with voters the way they used to. GOP voters want something different, or at least many of them do. One long-time GOP insider says he’s rarely seen the Oklahoma GOP so polarized.
The result is crowded, competitive primaries and a bunch of runoffs in August.
Oklahomans aren’t abandoning the Republican Party. The GOP is still registering more new voters than the Democrats and by about the same ratio. But a fight is on for the party’s tone and direction.
Here are four other observations on last week’s elections:
Medical marijuana is still a problem for lawmakers
Before Tuesday’s election, a special session to “fix” State Question 788 was a given.
Now, lawmakers don’t think so.
“Some (legislators) are terrified to even talk about regulation” of medical marijuana, House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said last week.
That’s because they saw what happened last year when some of them tried to roll back provisions of the criminal justice reform adopted by voters in November 2016.
They may also be confused by the rapidly shifting priorities of an electorate that not so long ago seemed more worried about Sharia Law and same-sex marriage than public schools and corrections reform.
Given all of that, Oklahoma’s generally conservative lawmakers, and especially Republicans, really don’t want to deal with any form of legalized marijuana ahead of the August primaries and November general election.
More than a half-million Oklahomans voted for medical marijuana, suggesting it was not just an issue for deadbeat liberal hippies. Republicans had to have voted for it, too.
And some Republican lawmakers don’t quite know what to make of that.
Will medical marijuana voters come back to polls?
Nearly 41,000 more Oklahomans voted on State Question 788 than voted in the gubernatorial primaries on Tuesday. That’s an astounding figure, and apparently Tuesday was the first time in nearly 100 years that a state question’s vote total exceeded the count for a gubernatorial primary or general election on the same ballot.
Anecdotally, we’ve heard of independent voters turning down Democratic ballots (independents may not vote in Republican or Libertarian primaries) or leaving them behind unmarked because they only cared about SQ 788.
Safe to say, many of those folks won’t be coming back to the polls for the Aug. 28 runoff or the general election in November.
Speaking of runoffs ….
We have a bunch of them: Nine for statewide office, five for Congress, five for state Senate and 29 for state representative.
And that doesn’t include runoffs for county offices or district attorney.
The 29 House runoffs involve 10 Republican incumbents. Election lore holds that runoffs are bad news for incumbents, especially those who finished second or were barely first in the primary.
Seven of the runoffs include legislators who voted against the new taxes legislative leaders said were necessary to pay teachers and public employees more.
Runoffs can be tricky. Turnout tends to be erratic, and second-place primary finishers often wind up winning. Witness Brad Henry’s 20.5 percentage point turnaround in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial campaign. Henry went from 15.5 points down to a 5-point victory in just three weeks, which is thought to be the biggest reversal of its kind in the nation’s history.
Some observers believe interest in these runoffs will be high, even without SQ 788 on the ballot. The other issue that drove turnout in the primary, public education, is still a factor in legislative races, and the remaining Republican gubernatorial candidates are likely to carpet bomb the state with campaign ads and events.
Besides statewide Republican primaries for most statewide offices (and Libertarian gubernatorial and Democratic corporation commissioner races), Tulsa area ballots will include Republican and Democratic 1st Congressional District elections, Democratic 2nd Congressional District, Republican state Senate Districts 10 and 36, and state House Districts 10, 36, 66, 68, 71, 79, 80 and 98 and Democratic districts 68.
And, besides all of that, Tulsa city council elections are Aug. 28, too.
Democrats shouldn’t feel too giddy
Democrats have suffered a net loss of legislative seats in every two-year election cycle since 1992, and for all the party’s recently renewed enthusiasm — and picking up four seats in special elections — there’s no guarantee that will change in November.
Republicans continue to widen their lead in voter registration, President Donald Trump’s approval rating is still plus-11 and Oklahoma’s all-Republican congressional delegation remains relatively popular.
And there’s this: If, as seems increasingly likely, the Republican Party is shifting slightly toward the middle, where does that leave Democrats?
A struggle, much like the one in the Republican Party, is underway over just how far left Oklahoma Democrats should go and what the consequences might be. Falling more in line with the national party might cede some voters to the Republicans, but it might also tap into alienated Oklahomans who aren’t voting now — or weren’t, before SQ 788.
Democrats effectively expanded their voting bloc by allowing independents to participate in Democratic primaries. Independents are now the fastest-growing segment of Oklahoma voters; in many cases, these independents seem genuinely disenchanted with both major parties, if not politics in general.
In the 1990s, the GOP convinced a similar wave of independents, many of them followers of Ross Perot, they were really Republicans. These latest unaligned voters have yet to be persuaded they’re Democrats.