The Journal Record
November 7, 2018
OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma House of Representatives will have an even larger Republican supermajority next year, but Democrats said that new blood will do them some good and that some of their losses highlighted work left to do.
Voters ousted three House incumbents on Tuesday, all of whom were Democrats. That included House Minority Leader Steve Kouplen, a longtime rural member. Four red seats in the Oklahoma House flipped blue, but seven blue seats flipped red, giving the GOP a three-seat net gain. Before the election, the party breakdown was 72-27 with two vacancies. Afterward, it shifted to 76-25.
Several observers said the race highlighted one of Oklahoma’s ongoing transformations. Rural areas are getting redder and urban areas are getting bluer. That trend has been ongoing across the country, the onlookers said, but it is beginning to visibly take hold in Oklahoma.
Pat McFerron is a founder at CMA Strategies. He said Oklahoma’s rural voters have long been more populist than the rest of the state, and now the GOP is the party representing those ideals. That has revealed itself over the past several years, becoming unavoidably clear during Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign.
“The Republican pro-Trump sentiment is so strong in rural Oklahoma,” McFerron said.
Leader Kouplen had been representing Beggs, an eastern Oklahoma town of about 1,300 people. Another displaced member, Rep. Donnie Condit, represented McAlester, a southeastern Oklahoma city of about 18,000 people.
McFerron noted that when Oklahoma House Democrats picked up a slew of seats in 2017 special elections, almost all of them were in suburban areas or urban areas, such as the seats in Norman and Tulsa.
“As you pick up those metro areas, you lose that rural edge,” he said.
Two of Oklahoma’s highest-ranking Democrats said they agreed the shift was taking place, but they had different takes on the best way to approach it.
Anna Langthorn is the Oklahoma Democratic Party’s chairwoman. Although the lost seats are a cause for concern, she said, the paradigm shift isn’t.
“I think overall the election cycle indicates that we have a lot of opportunities in urban Oklahoma,” she said.
State Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, is the House Democrats’ caucus chairwoman. She said the shift away from rural popularity is not inevitable, especially given the party’s track record on issues that affect those voters.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed we lost really important incumbent members in rural Oklahoma,” she said. “We have some work to do reconnecting with voters in rural Oklahoma. We still believe we’re the caucus that will keep their hospitals open, their schools open.”
They both agreed that the new members with more diverse backgrounds and career fields would be beneficial moving forward. Virgin said that among other updates, the caucus now has four women in its wings and that the party is working to create a more inclusive Legislature.
“We still have a long way to go in that aspect, but you take it one election cycle at a time,” she said.
Langthorn said new members will likely be more willing than those now outgoing to reach across the aisle and work with the majority party.
“It all depends on Republican leadership at the end of the day,” she said. “If they’re not willing to play fair, there’s nothing we can do.”
House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols said partisan obstinacy is likely what led to incumbents’ downfall. That was evident over the summer, when his party saw turnover.
“The Republican primary took out some frustrations,” he said. “The general took out some frustration on the minority party. Being no for the sake of being no is not going to be rewarded.”
To contrast the losses members faced after refusing collaboration over the past few years, he pointed to his own seat.
“I grossly outperformed registration in my district,” he said.
He interpreted that as an endorsement for bipartisan negotiation.
McFerron and Echols both said that there seemed to be strong support for House Republican leadership and its agenda. Not only did the party net new seats, its top members won with comfortable victories.
In addition to the additional seats, the majority will likely enjoy more cohesion. One of the House GOP’s top members and a conservative political action committee worked together to eject a swath of Republicanswho regularly voted against the caucus leaders’ agenda. Those members, many of whom belonged to what was known as the Platform Caucus, fell the furthest right on the ideological spectrum and opposed all tax increases. Oklahoma is one of two states that requires 75 percent of each chamber to approve a tax increase. During the past few legislative sessions, it was common for platform members who oppose all tax increases to work with House Democrats who opposed regressive taxes to block passage. Now there are fewer members in each group. Some of the most visible members of each crowd, such as Rep. Kevin Calvey on the right and Rep. Scott Inman on the left, termed out. But the elections also displaced many of them.