Several months ago, we wrote about this year’s Oklahoma elections following the candidate filing period. Based on the unusually high numbers of open seats, candidates filing for office, and challenges to incumbents, it already looked as if 2018 could be a landmark year in Oklahoma politics. Now, following what was an historic primary election in June, we know for certain that this is one of the most interesting and unexpected election years in Oklahoma in a long time. As we approach the runoff elections on August 28th, here are five things we know.
1. We’re seeing a huge surge in electoral participation
Oklahomans this year are paying keen attention to state politics. Years of growing concerns over the underfunding of public education and other neglected priorities, the drama of two special sessions focused on the budget, and this spring’s two-week teacher walkout have all helped shake up longstanding patterns of electoral indifference.
In May we noted the dramatic increase in the number of candidates running for office in Oklahoma. There were 442 legislative candidates on the ballot this year – a 24 percent increase from 2016 and a massive 67 percent increase from the 264 candidates who filed in 2014. One immediate consequence is a sharp drop in the number of seats with only a single candidate or party on the ballot, from 78 in 2014 to just 28 this year.
More candidates and more contested elections, combined with widespread interest in the medical marijuana state question on the June ballot, contributed to historic primary turnout. More than twice as many people voted in this year’s primary as in the last Gubernatorial primary election in 2014, with turnout surpassing both the 2014 general election and the 2016 Presidential primary, according to Election Board data.
There is no doubt that turnout for August’s runoff election will fall compared to June. In the past two election cycles, turnout for the runoffs was down over 30 percent from the initial primary. To the extent that turnout this June was boosted by strong interest in State Question 788, this year’s runoff drop-off could be even greater. On the other hand, with an unprecedented number of runoff race this year (46 – see chart), including the hotly contested Republican’s Governor race, and with so many more Oklahomans focused on state politics, we are unlikely to see a repeat of past elections where, typically, fewer than 20 percent of registered voters have cast votes.
It now also seems possible that turnout in the November elections will equal that of the 2016 Presidential election (1.45 million votes cast), which would be a 75 percent increase from the last Governor’s race (824,000 in 2014) and a 40 percent increase from the last election without an incumbent Governor (1.024 million in 2010).
2. There will be even more new faces in office after November
After the candidate filing deadline, we already knew that whatever should happen in the primary and general elections, there would be a high degree of turnover when the 57th Legislature convenes next year. We are now certain to see even fewer incumbents back at the Capitol.
The Legislature was already assured 33 new members – 21 in the House, 12 in the Senate – due to incumbents being termed out or choosing not to run. In the primaries, five incumbent Representatives and one incumbent Senator were defeated outright, which means at least 39 new faces next session. If the anti-incumbent wave continues, that number could easily exceed 50.
Even more striking is the number of lawmakers who will have no more than two years of experience going into the 2019 session. Even if every incumbent who is still on the ballot wins in November, there will be a maximum of 23 Senators and 33 House members with more than two years of legislative experience, our analysis shows (this assumes the election of the two remaining House members running for the Senate and includes Ken Luttrell, a former House member who knocked off the incumbent in HD 37). But it is virtually certain that the ranks of experienced legislators will be thinned further in August and November.
3. Republican incumbents are facing strong challenges
In May, we noted the unusually large number of Republican officeholders who faced primary challengers. The June results confirmed that Republican voters are mighty unhappy with their party’s incumbents.
The six Republican incumbents who were defeated on primary night is equal to the total number of incumbents of both parties who were defeated in all primaries in the previous 11 elections from 1994 – 2016, according to data shared by the Tulsa World. In addition, ten Republican lawmakers and three Republican statewide officeholders were forced into runoffs. This is more than the eight incumbents forced into runoffs in all elections since 1994, according to the Tulsa World.
By contrast, Democratic incumbents are facing little or no internal opposition this year. Only two Democratic lawmakers – Monroe Nichols in HD 72 and Karen Gaddis in HD 75 – faced primary challenges, and both won handily. Thirteen Democratic legislators were reelected without drawing an opponent, compared to just seven Republicans.
4. Anti-tax Republicans fared poorly in June
The Republican primaries are shaping up as a referendum on the crucial votes that lawmakers took this past year on tax increases. Would those who voted in favor of higher taxes be punished by Republican voters for breaking with party orthodoxy, or would those who voted against the tax increase be punished for failing to support the teacher pay raises that depended on the new tax revenues? The answer so far is clear: Republican incumbents who voted against tax increases are in the biggest danger.
We’ve been looking at three key revenue votes: HB 1054x, the so-called A+Plan in the first special session; HB 1033x, the main revenue bill from the Step Up Plan; and HB 1010xx, the revenue bill to fund education and state employees that finally passed with 3/4 support in March. Within the House Republican caucus:
- There were 16 members who voted No on all three bills. Of the 12 seeking re-election, two were defeated outright in June and seven were forced into a runoff. Just one won their primary outright, while another two were uncontested in the primary but will face a general election opponent.
- There were 47 members who voted Yes on all three bills. Of the 34 seeking reelection, three were defeated in the primary and three were forced into a runoff. Seventeen won their primaries, while another eleven will face a general election challenger, and four were elected unopposed.
As it stands, at most six of the 34 incumbents who supported tax increases could be defeated in the primaries, compared to nine of 12 who voted against tax increases.
5. November could be a wave election for Democrats – or not
Both the filing period and the June primaries showed that Oklahoma Republicans are facing a strong anti-incumbent mood this year. When combined with Democrats’ recent success in special elections in Oklahoma, Democrats have reasons to hope that their party will make significant gains in the Legislature, as well as possibly picking up one or more statewide offices. In fact, University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie has given Democrats a one in four chance of winning a majority in the Oklahoma House of Representatives this November. Currently. Democrats hold just 27 of House 101 seats (following the death of Rep. Claudia Griffith).
However, it is far from certain that the anti-incumbent mood battering Oklahoma Republicans in the primaries will continue through the general election. Registration trends in Oklahoma increasingly favor Republicans — as of this January, the Republican advantage over Democrats had grown to 8 points, 46.9 percent to 38.3 percent. Since 2010, Democratic registration has fallen by some 240,000 people, while Republicans have seen registration grow by 130,000. It must be remembered that Oklahoma still has straight-party voting, and in 2016, 61.7 percent of those casting a straight-party ballot voted Republican, compared to just 35.4 percent for the Democratic Party, according to data shared by the Election Board.
For Democrats to make large gains in November, their partisans will have to come out in force, while Republicans will either have to stay home or cross party lines. While that has happened in low-turnout special elections over the past four years, it’s not clear that the trend will translate to a general election, particularly if turnout is high. Unlike during the recent special elections and primary, there will be a lot of attention in November on national politics and the chance that Democrats will regain control of the US House and Senate, which may solidify party loyalties among Oklahoma voters, even for state and local races. In that case, while Democrats are still likely to be gain some additional seats, election night returns may produce more of a ripple than a wave for Oklahoma Democrats.