Hamilton: Reason to Sing a Different Tune (The Journal Record)

By Arnold Hamilton

As the midterm elections near, it’s easy to see why so many Oklahoma Democrats are singing the red-state blues.

The state hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. President Barack Obama didn’t carry any of the state’s 77 counties in either of his victories.

Republicans control every statewide elected office and all seven of the state’s seats in Washington. And the GOP has all but erased a century-plus Democratic advantage in the number of registered voters.

Yet, Democratic gubernatorial nominee state Rep. Joe Dorman, R-Rush Springs, remains within striking distance of incumbent Gov. Mary Fallin, who’s never lost an election. John Cox is positioned to recapture the state superintendent’s office for Democrats. And Democrats could pick up a couple of legislative seats that have been in Republican hands.

What explains this year’s pre-election polling?

Fallin’s flip-flop on Common Core clearly damaged her standing with some educators and parents.

Deposed Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, easily the most reviled statewide officeholder in recent memory, did the GOP no favors when it comes to holding that office.

And state Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, picked up some powerful enemies in his first term, including the State Chamber of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association.

Here’s another theory: As Oklahoma grows and becomes more cosmopolitan early in its second century, it may no longer be as reliably uber-conservative as it has been.

Consider a statewide poll of registered voters, commissioned last spring by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Asked how they generally identify themselves politically, 46 percent answered moderate, somewhat liberal or very liberal.

Think about that. Nearly half the registered voters in Oklahoma – a state that routinely battles Utah for the unofficial title of the nation’s most conservative – view themselves as center or left.

It’s true that 51 percent of those surveyed described themselves as somewhat conservative or very conservative. It’s also true that we often don’t have as clear a picture of ourselves as we’d like to think.

But in early 21st-century Oklahoma, the fact that moderates (27 percent), somewhat liberals (13 percent) and very liberals (6 percent) represent nearly half of registered voters is surprising and revealing.

This is surprising, because Oklahoma is routinely stereotyped politically as being to the right of Attila the Hun. Revealing, because it suggests voters are beginning to understand what is happening to them at NE 23rd and Lincoln. Tax cuts disproportionately benefit the wealthy. Tax breaks steer hundreds of millions, if not billions, of tax dollars into corporate coffers. Meanwhile, public schools starve, mental health needs are all but ignored, and roads and bridges crumble.

All this does not portend a seismic political shift in Oklahoma’s 2014 statewide elections. Too many Republicans – think Attorney General Scott Pruitt – failed to even draw Democratic opponents.

Yet, two years ago in North Dakota, another flyover state dominated by energy and agriculture interests, Democrats won an improbable victory, holding a U.S. Senate seat that pundits pegged as an almost certain Republican pickup. Heidi Heitkamp won by emphasizing a progressive agenda that promoted public education and economic opportunity for all, not just the wealthy elite.

Despite what conventional wisdom regards as a bad Democratic year nationally, it would not be shocking if Oklahoma produced an upset, or two or even three. It all depends on who turns out to vote.

This much is certain: It’s good for Oklahoma when both major parties are strong and competitive, helping generate robust debate over key public policy that will shape the state’s future.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.