What we know about Oklahoma’s 2018 legislative elections

The filing period for the 2018 elections concluded on April 13th, one day after the Oklahoma Education Association announced the end to the two-week teacher walkout that brought tens of thousands of educators and their supporters to the Capitol on a daily basis. Many teachers vowed to turn their energy to the upcoming election campaigns, committing themselves to work to support pro-education candidates on the primary and general election ballots.

We don’t know yet what impact the mobilization of educators, or other local and national trends, will ultimately have on the election results, but here are five things we do know about the 2018 elections:

We are seeing a huge surge in candidate participation

A total of 463 candidates filed for the 125 House and Senate legislative seats up for election in November; after candidate withdrawals and challenges, there will be 442 names on the ballot this year. That represents a 24 percent increase from the 357 candidates on the ballot in 2016 and a massive 67 percent increase from the 264 candidates who filed in 2014.

One immediate consequence of the surge in candidates running for office is a steep drop in the number of uncontested seats compared to four years ago:

  • In 2014, in over two-thirds of all House seats (67 of 101) and nearly half the Senate seats (11 of 24), there was no vote in November because only a single candidate filed for office or the race was decided in a party primary.
  • In 2016, those numbers fell to 29 House seats and 5 Senate seats that were decided prior to November.
  • This year, there will be a general election contest in all but 28 House seats and 5 Senate seats.  Of these, 16 House members and 4 Senators are running unopposed; the other 13 seats will be decided by the winner of party primaries.

There will be lots of new faces after November

No matter what happens in the primary and general elections, there will be a high degree of turnover when the 57th Legislature convenes next year.

In the House, 33 seats will not have an incumbent on the ballot as a result either of term limits (12) or the decision not to seek re-election (21, of whom three are running for the Senate and two are seeking statewide office). In the Senate, 11 of 24 incumbents are not seeking re-election, with six reaching their 12-year term limit and five opting not to run again for the Senate (one of whom is running for statewide office). Of the 26 incumbents who chose not to seek re-election, all but four are Republicans. 

“Over three-fifths of legislators in the 2019 session will have less than four years of legislative experience, even if every single incumbent on the ballot is re-elected.”

If we go back to the previous election cycle, the turnover numbers are quite astonishing. If every incumbent seeking re-election wins in November, there will still be just 33 House members left who were in office in 2014.  The Senate is now assured of having at least 24 members in office after November who were not in office in 2014 (this assumes that the three House members running for the Senate are elected). Over three-fifths of all legislators in the 2019 session will have less than four years of experience, even if every incumbent on the ballot is re-elected.

Republican incumbents are facing strong challenges

Of the 59 Republican incumbents who are seeking re-election, only seven (one Senator, six Representatives) did not draw either a primary or general election opponent. Thirty-five of the 59 (59 percent) will face a primary challenger, while another 17 will face a general election opponent. By contrast, in 2016, there were 57 Republicans seeking re-election. Of these, only 19 (33 percent) drew a primary challenger, while 12 retained their seat without a primary or general election challenge.

The situation for Democrats is quite different. There are 22 Democratic incumbents seeking re-election. Of these, all three incumbent Senators and 10 of 19 incumbent House members did not draw an opponent. Only two incumbents are facing a primary challenge, while seven will face a general election opponent.

Anti-tax Republicans drew more primary and general election challengers

The central drama of the last two years has been the prolonged effort to win approval of revenue measures aimed initially at averting cuts to health care services and, more recently, providing teachers and other employees a pay raise.  Most Republicans proved willing to side with education and health care advocates by supporting a series of tax bills, despite vocal opposition and threats of electoral repercussions from conservative activists. However, a minority of Republican legislators voted against every major tax bill.

The filing period indicates that the staunch anti-tax Republicans are being more strongly contested than those who supported tax increases. We looked 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 47 members who voted Yes on all three bills. Of the 34 seeking re-election, 19 (56 percent) drew a primary opponent, nine of whom (26 percent) drew two or more primary opponents.  Eleven others drew only general election opponents, while four have been re-elected without opposition.
  • There were 16 members who voted No on all three bills. Of the 12 seeking re-election, 10 (83 percent) drew a primary opponent, seven of whom (58 percent) drew two or more primary opponents. The other two drew general election challengers; none are unopposed.

Republicans enjoy a growing advantage in voter registration

The candidate filing period brought much good news for Oklahoma Democrats: more of their members have been elected unopposed, fewer of their incumbents are being challenged in party primaries, and they managed to field candidates in as many Senate districts as Republicans (21 each) and almost as many House districts (87 seats for Democrats, 90 for Republicans). In addition, Democrats’ recent success in special elections, nationally and in Oklahoma, can offer the party hope of gaining seats this fall. But in order to do so, Democrats will have to overcome a growing disadvantage in party registration.

Since June 2016, the Republicans’ registration advantage has grown by 4.3 percentage points statewide. According to current data from the Oklahoma Election Board, Republicans now account for 46.7 percent of all registered voters,  a 1.4 point increase from June 2016. Democrats are now just 38.0 percent of registered voters, a 2.9 point drop from 2016. (A further 15.0 percent are registered independents, up from 13.7 percent in 2016).  In all but six Senate districts and twelve House districts, Republican registration has increased compared to Democrats over the past two years.

The trend is especially pronounced in rural areas where Democrats have long held an advantage in party registration: 18 of the 20 districts where Republican registration has grown the most in the last two years are non-metropolitan seats where Democrats outnumbered Republicans two years ago. Conversely, the 18 districts that are now more Democratic than they were two years ago are all in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metropolitan areas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

2 thoughts on “What we know about Oklahoma’s 2018 legislative elections

  1. How about some biographical and background information on the candidates in the primaries? It’s one thing to encourage people to vote, but what good is that if there is next to no information on the candidates? Take Ken Reich, for example, a candidate in the Democratic Primary for Corporation Commission. All I know about him is he’s 77 and lives in Idabel.

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