Mates of State. GOP officials should carefully study the wilderness wanderings of the British Conservative Party. Dominant under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the party began a decline under John Major, finally losing power in 1997. Only now, nearly 12 years later, are the Tories in a position to contend for control of Parliament.
Oklahoma's great big election year is finally at an end. It began almost a year ago, in December 2007, as school board candidates and presidential candidates filed for their place on the ballot.
Since then we've had elections in February, March, April, July, August, and the big finale last week.
We've been inundated with push cards, barraged with robocalls, and overwhelmed by radio and TV ads. We're tired, but not too tired to take a closer look at the final results.
Let's start close to home and move out from there.
This may be the first time in Tulsa history that a tax initiative's primary opposition came from those who thought it wasn't expensive enough.
The $451 million, five-year plan won despite the opposition of three city councilors who backed a $2 billion, 12-year plan and argued that the short plan wouldn't actually fix the streets.
Both the sales tax and the general obligation bond issue received just over 60 percent of the vote citywide.
Although both measures received a majority of the vote in each of the nine council districts, there was a fall-off of about six percentage points compared to the most recent city-wide tax vote, the 2006 Third Penny package. This lag was consistent from one district to another.
One lesson learned: If the issue is important enough, it will pass even if the advertising is lousy. The final postcard from the "yes" campaign looked like the work of a first grader armed with scissors, paste, and a dozen issues of Modern Maturity.
Congratulations to the victorious PR firm. Go spend your win bonus on an "Intro to Photoshop" class.
Electoral Roller Coaster Ride Ends for Sally Bell
While city voters were calling dibs on the "Four to Fix the County" sales tax -- the city sales tax will increase by 0.167 percent the instant that the County's Four to Fix expires at the end of September 2011 -- County Commission District 2 voters were electing a new commissioner with a cargo-cult-like faith in county sales tax packages as the source of all economic progress in the region.
Karen Keith won a 53-47 victory over Sally Bell thanks to a four-to-one funding advantage and relentless attacks on Bell by Keith's allies at the daily paper.
It was always going to be an uphill battle for a populist conservative like Bell, running on a limited-government, no-new-taxes platform in a district that includes much of the Midtown Money Belt, trying to beat one of their own.
Bell won most of the precincts south and west of the Arkansas River (except for old Red Fork), but not by enough to make up for the huge margins Keith built in Midtown.
Even in precincts she won, Bell ran well behind the top of the GOP ticket.
While Bell had name recognition from her family's amusement park, voters didn't know her as an individual they way they felt they knew Keith from her many years on local TV. That kind of positive personal image can immunize a candidate; voters will discard negative attacks (even if they're fair and accurate) as inconsistent with their picture of the candidate.
The State Senate Win, Bigger House Majority
As bad as Tuesday was for Republicans nationwide, it was a great day for the Oklahoma GOP, which gained control of the State Senate for the first time in state history. The party also improved on its control of the State House, gaining four seats.
The big question in Senate District 37 -- the western part of Tulsa County -- was whether Nancy Riley's 2004 voters were voting for the party or the person. The answer was resounding, and the party switcher was defeated by newcomer Dan Newberry by a margin nearly as large as that by which Riley won four years ago.
As the central battle in the war for the State Senate, District 37 was bombarded with ads in every medium, including TV.
This is the first year I can recall TV ads playing a significant role in state legislative races. Democrat incumbent Richard Lerblance and Republican challenger Kenny Sherrill, running for Senate District 7, used Tulsa broadcast stations to blast their ads all across eastern Oklahoma.
Lerblance was thought-vulnerable because of his connections to Gene Stipe and the Little Dixie Democrat corruption machine, but he won with 55 percent of the vote. That's still a small margin for a Democrat in that part of Oklahoma.
One of those House pickups was here in the Tulsa metro area: Republican Eddie Fields won a rematch in House District 36, a district that includes Skiatook and Sperry in northwest Osage County. He defeated Scott Bighorse by a landslide, using frequent radio ads to condemn the incumbent Democrat's voting record.
The Republican legislative victory is the culmination of a 56-year-long process. In 1952, Oklahoma began to vote consistently for the Republican presidential candidate. (The state deviated from that pattern in 1964, supporting an incumbent from next-door Texas in a landslide year.)
In 1962, Oklahoma elected its first Republican governor. Since 1968, we've had at least one Republican U. S. Senator.
1994 was the breakthrough year, with a Republican sweep of the congressional delegation and victories or close races for all the statewide offices.
But Democrats retained control of the legislature and used the 2001 redistricting process to give rural areas disproportionate strength and to make it harder for Republicans to win seats.
The game changer came from State GOP Chairman Gary Jones. Narrowly losing the 2002 race for State Auditor, Jones saw that Republicans were failing to connect with voters in rural Oklahoma, despite the alignment between small-town values and the Republican platform. He sought the chairmanship to try to change that.
Jones began recruiting candidates who were known in their hometowns as civic leaders -- professionals and business owners -- but weren't necessarily identified as political animals. These candidates were well positioned to win seats that became open thanks to term limits.
In 2004, Jones also instituted a get-out-the-vote program that had been used successfully in Georgia, contacting forgetful Republican voters multiple times in the last few days before the election, via mail and phone, and on the doorstep.
The result was a State House takeover in 2004, retention of an open seat in the U. S. Senate, and victory for President George W. Bush in every county. In 2006, Republicans would have taken control of the State Senate, had it not been for Nancy Riley's defection.
Democrats have had a majority of registrations, but that's a lagging indicator. As of November 1, the donkeys slipped below the 50 percent mark, although they still have a plurality of voters.
During his visit to Oklahoma City a few years ago, Borat Sagdiyev (the Kazakh alter ego of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) stopped by the state Republican headquarters to learn from Jones how to make a political speech. At the end of the visit, in a deliciously awkward moment preserved on video (see it on YouTube), Borat prostrated himself before Jones to honor his wisdom.
Expect to see Republican officials from around the country to follow Borat in making a pilgrimage to the Sooner State to sit at Jones' feet (metaphorically speaking) and learn how Oklahoma turned more Republican in a Democratic year.
Dana Murphy Gets Her Due
Republicans also took back total control of the Corporation Commission after a brief interruption. Dana Murphy, an oil and gas attorney and a former administrative law judge, succeeded in her second run for the office, defeating Jim Roth, the Democratic caretaker appointed by Gov. Brad Henry after Republican Denise Bode resigned last year.
Murphy's experience trumped Roth's huge campaign budget, which he had accumulated with the help of Chesapeake Energy's Aubrey McClendon. The election result means that two of the three commissioners -- Bob Anthony is the other one -- are there in spite of the best efforts of large, regulated corporations to defeat them. That's good news for Oklahoma consumers and small businesses.
Roth's loss was a defeat for the national political organizations who donated generously to help him become the first openly gay statewide elected official.
Georgianna Sent Packing
Georgianna Oliver came to Tulsa about a year ago to run for something. She ran for Congress because it was the only office without a residency requirement; she registered too late to run for anything else. Despite her ability to finance her own campaign, Kathy Taylor-style, and despite the Mayor's public support of her candidacy (Taylor headlined a major Oliver fundraiser), Oliver was trounced by incumbent John Sullivan, who appears to have the job for as long as he wants it and as long as he continues to vote as a consistent conservative in Washington.
Oliver barely beat antiwar activist Mark Manley in the primary, and few Democrats seemed to regard her as a serious candidate. We're curious to see whether she'll stick around or head back to DC.
Inhofe's Strange Shortfall
To no one's surprise, former Tulsa mayor Jim Inhofe won his fourth election to the U. S. Senate. What was surprising is how far Inhofe's vote total lagged behind that of John McCain.
It appears that a big chunk of McCain voters cast a none-of-the-above vote for Senate. Statewide Inhofe's total was only 80 percent of McCain's. Meanwhile, Democrat Andrew Rice beat Obama's total by about 5 percent.
The overall vote in the Senate race was 92 percent that of the presidential race. Some McCain voters evidently went for Democrat Andrew Rice or independent candidate Stephen Wallace for Senate.
Using the presidential numbers as the universe of voters, and counting the independent votes and undervotes together, you'd get Inhofe 52 percent, Rice 36 percent, and "none of the above" 12 percent.
While there are always some number of people who vote for president and skip the rest of the ballot, the drop-off is rarely this dramatic, and in fact down-ticket Republican candidates outpolled Inhofe. John Sullivan received 13 percent more votes than Inhofe in the three counties (Tulsa, Wagoner, and Washington) that make up the bulk of the First District. The combined total for Tom Cole and Mary Fallin in Oklahoma County was on par with McCain's and 24 percent better than Inhofe's.
Comparing the result to 2004, it's striking that an incumbent U.S. Senator running against a left-wing State Senator would finish with about as many votes as a former congressman (Tom Coburn) running for an open Senate seat against a sitting congressman who was a perceived moderate (Brad Carson).
We can only guess the reasons for the dramatic dropoff in votes for Inhofe. His endorsement of Kirk Humphreys over Tom Coburn to succeed Don Nickles in the Senate, his behind-the-scenes work on behalf of Randi Miller's mayoral campaign and (it is widely believed in support of the river tax), and his support for overriding the president's veto of a pork-laden water resources bill -- individually these issues have little impact, but cumulatively they seem to have eroded grassroots enthusiasm, despite Inhofe's overall record as one of the Senate's most conservative members.
We suspect that 2nd District Congressman Dan Boren is kicking himself. Given his popularity, his famous name, and his moderate image, plus a funding boost from out-of-state interests anxious to unseat Inhofe, Boren might very well have been able to reclaim his dad's old Senate seat this year. Don't be surprised if he gives it a shot six years from now.
Bluer Than Blue
Oklahoma distinguished itself this year as the reddest of all the red states. Every one of our 77 counties gave a majority of their vote to John McCain and Sarah Palin.
The Democratic Party, like every other social democrat, socialist, and labor party in the world, ought to be assigned the color red, but that battle seems to be lost. Blue is the color they use for friendly forces in military exercises, which may be why the mainstream media chose it for the Democrats.
Whatever our color, here we stand in bold contrast with the rest of the country. That may be a marketing opportunity for Oklahoma. Conservatives from the coasts may be looking for a home where they can cling bitterly to their guns and religion (as the President-elect put it) and not feel out of place.
There's another red/blue map that shows the change in the vote from 2004 to 2008. Only three significant areas grew more Republican. The largest is a belt that begins in western Pennsylvania, extends along the Appalachians through West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee to the hills of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.
This is the westward migration path of the Scotch-Irish, an ethnic group that came to America in the 18th century from the Irish province of Ulster. It is often overlooked, even though an estimated 10 percent of Americans have Scotch-Irish ancestry. The group, which played a disproportionate role in settling the American frontier, has a reputation for stubborn independence.
It's easy to see how voters in places where the Scotch-Irish gave the local political culture an individualistic bent might not appreciate a presidential candidate who wants to spread their wealth around and take their guns away.
(The other two areas that trended Republican? The Redneck Riviera -- the Florida Panhandle -- and Cajun Country in southern Louisiana.)
Down at the precinct level, there were exceptions to the Republican trend in Oklahoma. Some well-to-do midtown precincts that normally vote Republican went for Obama this year. Maybe that's because Democrats are getting wealthier. Or perhaps it's another example of Money Belt Republican disdain for conservative populism.
Keeping the Wilderness Years to a Minimum
Despite localized successes, the Republican Party is on a dangerous trajectory nationwide, losing so much as a foothold in New England and falling further behind on the Pacific Coast and in the Upper Midwest.
Last week saw the defeat of New England's lone Republican congressman. Republicans have had some successes at the state level -- Massachusetts had a string of Republican governors, culminating with Mitt Romney -- but it hasn't translated to stronger local parties.
GOP officials should carefully study the wilderness wanderings of the British Conservative Party. Dominant under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the party began a decline under John Major, finally losing power in 1997. Only now, nearly 12 years later, are the Tories in a position to contend for control of Parliament.
Initially the Conservatives wrote off Scotland and the north of England. Increasingly they looked like less like a national party and more like a regional faction for the countryside and the southern suburbs. With such a limited base, they were unable to contend for national power.
A few years ago, former Conservative leader William Hague and former MP Michael W. Bates began an effort to rebuild Tory support in the north, opening regional offices and providing fundraising and campaign support to candidates at every level of government. Conservatives began winning control of local government councils, which provided them with a pool of elected officials who could make credible runs for Parliament.
The Republican Party cannot survive in the long term as a regional party. They can't reclaim the White House or Congress by focusing on those offices alone.
Where the party is strong, as it is in Oklahoma, it needs to remain consistent with its principles, steer clear of the temptations of power, and continually build new leadership for the future. Where the party has been wiped out, it needs to concentrate on recruiting and electing strong candidates for local office.
While Oklahoma began its path to Republican domination from the top of the ticket, it took solid grassroots action to finish the process. National Republican leaders would do well to learn that lesson sooner rather than later.
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