Looking at the headlines, the results of the November elections might give the impression that nothing much has changed in Oklahoma. Led by Governor-elect Kevin Stitt, Republicans swept all eight statewide offices for a third consecutive election, with all candidates winning by double-digit margins. Republicans also continued a 26-year streak of making gains in the Legislature at the time of general elections, picking up a net of three additional seats in the House while losing one in the Senate. Republicans will enjoy a 76-25 seat majority in the House and a 39-9 seat advantage in the Senate next year.
Still, while the election gave the appearance of politics as usual in Oklahoma, there were several important differences this year. Here are six ways that 2018 was not like other years in Oklahoma politics:
1. A record number of candidates filed for office
This year’s candidate filing deadline came just days after the end of the state’s 10-day teacher walkout, which capped a two-year period of intense public interest and engagement around education funding and the state budget. One clear result was more Oklahomans running for office.
Four years ago, there were so few candidates running for office that in 78 out of 125 legislative contests, the winner was decided on filing day or in a party primary, leaving voters no opportunity to decide their representative in the general election. In total, only 264 candidates filed for the Legislature in 2014.
This year, 442 candidates filed to run for the House and Senate, an increase of 67 percent compared to 2014. In 92 of 125 seats, voters had a choice this November between at least two candidates in the general election [see data]. There was also an increase this year in candidates running for Congress and statewide offices from both major parties.
2. Voter turnout was way up
In the 2014 mid-term election, less than 30 percent of eligible voters made it to the polls to cast a ballot for Governor and other offices. This was the lowest turnout in at least 50 years and perhaps in state history. As we noted that year in a report examining Oklahoma’s broken democracy, Oklahoma’s voter turnout rates had fallen to among the very lowest in the nation.
This year’s voter turnout was way up in Oklahoma. In June, boosted by the surge in candidate filings and competitive primaries, along with the medical marijuana ballot initiative, more people voted in the primary than in the 2014 general election. Oklahoma’s primary turnout rate was tied for highest in the nation, and the state saw the greatest turnout increase compared to 2014, according to data compiled by the Bipartisan Policy Center. In the general election, just under 1.2 million people voted, a 43 percent increase from 2014 and 15 percent more than the last open Governor’s race in 2010. In total, 56 percent of registered voters and 42.5 percent of the entire eligible voting population turned out in November.
3. More women on the ballot – and in the Legislature
Women have been severely underrepresented in the Oklahoma Legislature, with only 21 female legislators – 14 percent, the second lowest share in the nation – serving in the House and Senate in the 2018 legislative session. As in most of the nation, 2018 saw a big increase in the number of women running for office in Oklahoma, although this was much more true for Democrats than Republicans. As we discussed prior to the election, women made up just under half of Democratic candidates who filed for seats in the Legislature. Women also comprised half of those who emerged from the Democratic primary to appear on the general election ballot in November. Among Republicans, fewer than one in four candidates filing for office were women, and barely one in seven candidates on the November ballot were women.
Despite the shortage of female Republican candidates, there will be 32 women in the Legislature in 2019, an increase of 11 [see data]. Notably, all six seats flipped by Democrats in the House and Senate were won by women, and Democratic women won two open seats previously held by Democratic men. Six Republican women won open seats formerly held by Republican men, while two more Republican women – Sheila Dills (HD 69) and Sherrie Conley (HD 20) – knocked out men in the primaries. In total, there will be 16 Republican women (out of 115 total Republicans) and 16 Democratic women (out of 34 total Democrats) in the next Legislature.
4. A year of historic turnover
When a new Legislature convenes in 2019, 56 of its members will be freshmen – 46 in the House and 10 in the Senate [see data]. (The list of freshmen doesn’t include newly-elected Senators John Michael Montgomery and George Young, who previously served in the Senate, or Rep. Ken Luttrell, who is returning for a second tour of duty in the House.)
Of the 56 members of the freshmen class, 41 were elected to fill the seats of lawmakers who were term-limited (18) or who opted not to run again (23). Another twelve freshmen – all Republicans, all but one of them House members – gained office by defeating incumbents in party primaries and then winning the general election. By comparison, only five incumbents had been unseated in a primary in all the elections since 1994, according to a list compiled by Tulsa World writer Randy Krehbiel. Of the 12 defeated Republicans, eight were among the 19 House Republicans who voted against the measure to raise taxes to pay for teacher pay raises and other priorities during the 2018 legislative session. With another seven departing due to term limits and retirement, only four of those 19 anti-tax House members will be back in 2019.
Anti-incumbent fever subsided after the primaries, and in the general election, every Republican incumbent won re-election. However, three incumbent Democrats – Karen Gaddis, Dennis Condit, and Minority Leader Steve Kouplen – all lost their seats. Gaddis had won a special election in 2017 in a heavily Republican district, while the other two represented rural areas.
In addition to the 56 freshmen, the 2019 Legislature will include a sophomore class of 45 legislators who were first elected in 2016 or in special elections in 2017 or 2018. Just one-in three state lawmakers will have more than two years of experience, and just 14 members, and only one Democrat, will have served more than 6 years [see data].
5. A large group of educators were elected
Education has been the number one issue in Oklahoma for the past several years, and one way that educators have sought a greater voice in the political process is by running for office. April’s filing deadline immediately followed the end of this spring’s 10-day teacher walkout. This helped encourage a large group of teachers and school officials – 65 in total, according to the Oklahoma Education Association – to run for the Legislature.
Now that the dust has settled, it’s clear that educators will be a significant presence in the Legislature in 2019. Based on data on candidate backgrounds gathered by the Oklahoma Education Association, 21 professional educators were elected in 2018; they join three incumbent Senators who were not up for re-election this year. [see data]. Of the 24 educators, 16 are in the House, 8 in the Senate; 15 are Republicans and 9 are Democrats. Most notably, 17 are freshmen, which means that nearly one-third of the freshmen class will be educators.
6. The rural-urban divide grew deeper
Historically in Oklahoma, Democrats built large legislative majorities by electing members from rural Oklahoma, while Republicans were more competitive in the cities and suburbs. Over the past quarter-century, the geographical bases of the parties have reversed. This year’s general election accelerated the trend of Republicans controlling almost all of rural Oklahoma while Democrats made gains in the metropolitan areas in and around Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Republicans flipped eight Democratic seats this year – all in non-metropolitan districts, except for the Tulsa-area seat held briefly by Karen Gaddis [see data]. This now leaves Democrats with just five seats outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa in the House and none in the Senate. Democrats flipped six seats formerly held by Republicans – four in Oklahoma City and two in Tulsa. Democrats have now picked up 13 seats from Republicans in the two metro areas since 2014, even as their total number of legislative seats has fallen due to losses outside Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
The rural-urban split was also a decisive factor in the Governor’s race, with Drew Edmondson outpolling Kevin Still by three points in the four most populated counties around Oklahoma City and Tulsa, but losing by 22 points in the rest of the state.
The bottom line
This year began with Oklahomans highly engaged in state politics, which led to more candidates running for office, more primary voters, and more incumbents losing party primaries than at any time in recent decades. By the general election, politics had returned closer to normal, but the effects of this year’s political activism will be seen in next year’s large freshman class and many more women and educators serving in the Legislature.