Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
This election year in Oklahoma, and probably nationally, is shaping up to be one of the strangest in a while. So far, the best explanation seems to be “participation.” For quite a while now, a lot of people have just been absent from the political process. Probably many felt their participation didn’t matter. As a result, some candidates who logically would seem unelectable have gotten elected or re-elected because of the apathy. At least for this election cycle, that seems to have changed. Whether it’s the medical marijuana question or outrage over education and other issues, people voted, and it mattered.
But the question remains, what will be the effect of the increased participation. Well, it was immediately discernible on medical marijuana. It’s amazing what a 14-point victory will do. Before the election it was hard to find a politician speaking kindly of the state question. The governor was going to call a special session, and the legislature seemed ready to come in and re-write the measure. Now, it’s just fine to let the Health Department take care of it.
But what about the direction of the state in general? Of the dozen or more very conservative House members, seven will not be back — either because they have been defeated or were not on the ballot. At least six more are either in tough runoffs or face competitive races in the general election. If only half these six members lose, which seems likely, ten of the most conservative House members would be gone. That may not sound like a lot in a 101-member body, but in effect, it is. There are currently 72 Republican House members. Ten members who are ideologically intransigent is a strong bloc, and they influence about another ten members who either lean ideologically conservative on any given issue or are politically afraid of those who do. Ideologically pure members, when given leverage, tend to hold out for extreme positions and votes on extreme measures. So, they exercise more power than their numbers would indicate.
If the ten very conservative Republicans are replaced by more moderate voices, it could make a huge difference in the Republican caucus. Of course, no one knows what the new members will be like at this point. There are both moderates and conservatives still in races. And some Democratic seats could swing to Republican. No one knows what those Republican members will be like. So, for now it’s only possible to say it “looks like” the Legislature could be less conservative.
Given the filings, it also seems likely the Democrats will at least hold their own and likely pick up some seats. They will likely win some and lose some, which makes the net result uncertain. If the Democrats don’t pick up at least a few seats in a year of uncertainty and voter participation like this, it will be a long comeback for them to regain power. One shortcut would be a Democratic governor and enough Democratic legislative votes to sustain gubernatorial vetoes.