Two years ago, Oklahomans participated in what were, in many ways, historic elections. Following several tumultuous years in state politics, which included growing popular anger over cuts to education and other services, multiple special sessions, the first tax increase by the Legislature in nearly three decades, and a ten-day teacher walkout, the 2018 elections generated a strong surge in the number of candidates running for office and in voter turnout. When the dust settled in November, more than one-third of new legislators were freshmen, including a dozen freshmen Republicans who had knocked off incumbents in their party primary. Voters also elected a record number of women and educators. For all that, the partisan makeup of the Legislature remained roughly unchanged, with Republicans picking up a net of three additional seats in the House while losing one in the Senate.
As the June 30th primaries approach, we already know that the 2020 elections will look very different than 2018. Here are five things we know:
1. There are far fewer candidates running for legislative office
Only 247 candidates filed for this year’s 126 open legislative seats (101 in the House, 25 in the Senate). This is a 44 percent drop compared to 2018 and fewer even than the number of candidates who ran in 2014.
2. Only a minority of seats will be contested in the general election
For nearly two-thirds of open legislative seats in 2014, voters did not have the chance to cast a ballot to elect their House member or Senator in November, either because a candidate ran unopposed or the election was decided by a party primary. With far more candidates running in 2016 and 2018, the number of uncontested seats fell to just over 1 in 4. This year, however, a clear majority of Oklahomans will not have the chance to decide who represents them in the House and Senate. In the House, 42 members (38 Republicans and four Democrats) were elected unopposed because they drew no challengers, while another 20 seats will be decided in the primaries. In the Senate, eight members (seven Republicans and one Democrat) were elected unopposed while another four will be elected in the primaries. In total, in only 51 of 126 legislative seats will there be more than one candidate on the ballot in November.
3. The two-party grip on the Legislature remains unchallenged
While an increasing number of Oklahomans are registering as independents and Libertarians, the choice for state legislative races is essentially limited to Republicans and Democrats. Independents now make up 15.9 percent of registered voters, according to Election Board data from January 2020, up from 13.5 percent in 2016. However, only one independent candidate filed for the state House or Senate, Cassie Kinet in HD 43. Two years ago, 15 candidates filed as independents. Meanwhile, the Libertarian Party, which gained official party status in Oklahoma for the first time in 2017, has seen its share of voter registration rise to 0.5 percent in 2020. There will be only two Libertarian candidates on the 2020 ballot – one in HD 101, one in SD 17 – down from seven candidates in 2018.
4. The next Legislature will see far fewer new faces
In 2018, as a result of term limits, voluntary retirements, and incumbents who were defeated in the primaries and general election, there were a total of 56 new legislators elected – 46 in the House and 10 in the Senate. Combined with the large sophomore class of legislators first elected in 2016, fewer than 1 in 3 members of the Legislature elected in 2018 had more than two years of legislative experience.
Here again, the 2020 elections are certain to look very different. There are only 12 seats – nine in the House, three in the Senate – without an incumbent on the ballot. Already, 49 incumbents (41 Representatives and eight Senators) have been elected after not drawing an opponent. Among the remaining incumbents, 23 face only primary opponents, 33 face general election opponents, and 12 face both a primary and general election opponent. While the voters will of course have the last word, there are few indications of an anti-incumbent wave building in Oklahoma — and the constraints posed by the coronavirus on fundraising and campaigning likely make it even harder this year to unseat incumbents.
5. The partisan make-up of the Legislature is unlikely to see major changes
Going into the 2020 elections, Republicans hold super-majorities in both chambers, enjoying a a 38-9 advantage with one vacancy in the Senate and a 77-23 advantage with one vacancy in the House.
In the Senate, Republicans hold 16 of the 23 seats not up for election in 2020 and are already assured of winning 11 seats where Democrats did not field a candidate. Democrats hold seven seats not on the ballot in 2020 and won one seat unopposed. This leaves 13 seats with a general election contest, all but one of which are held by Republicans. While there are expected to be two hotly contested Senate races in Tulsa – the seat won by Democrat Allison Ikley-Freeman in a special election in 2017 and an open seat vacated by term-limited Republican Gary Stanislawski — few other races are expected to be competitive, although Democrats have some hope of building on gains of recent years in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas by picking up an additional seat or two.
In the House, Republicans are already assured of winning 56 seats where no Democrat filed for office — enough to retain their majority no matter what happens in November. This includes an automatic pick-up of one seat, HD 7, vacated by a term-limited Democratic incumbent. Democrats, meanwhile, are assured of six seats where no Republican filed for office. There will be 38 seats with a general election campaign, of which 21 seats are currently held by Republicans and 17 seats by Democrats. This includes HD 89 held by Democrat Shane Stone before he retired earlier this year. While both parties have hopes of flipping several seats, the small number of open seats means make it unlikely to see a significant change in the party breakdown in the House.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the stark rural-urban divide in the Legislature shows no signs of abating. Going into this election, Republicans controlled every seat outside the metropolitan Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas in the Senate and all but four non-urban seats in the House. Republicans have already won the seat vacated by retiring Democrat Ben Loring of Miami and hope to pick up the open seat currently held by retiring Democrat David Perryman of Chickasha. In much of rural Oklahoma, Democrats are no longer even fielding candidates; in these areas, where Republican incumbents are not winning unopposed, they are likelier to be facing Republican primary challenges than Democratic opponents. Two-party competition is now mostly limited to the two metropolitan regions, where Democrats have gained 13 seats from Republicans during the last two election cycles and have hopes of picking off an additional few seats in 2020.