"We did not just lose our majority, we lost our way." - Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana).
It was a strange day, Election Day, particularly for conservative Republicans.
On the one hand, there was a significant shift in both houses of Congress -- 30 seats in the House, 7 seats in the Senate, giving control of both houses to the Democrats for the first time in 12 years. And in Oklahoma, Democrats nearly swept statewide offices. Only the three Corporation Commission seats remain in Republican hands.
But on the other hand, Republicans had a one-seat net-loss but retained their majority in the Oklahoma House, and gained two seats in the Senate, resulting in a 24-24 tie, the first time in state history that the Democrats haven't had a majority in that body.
And the Tulsa County Courthouse is now 100% Republican for the first time in history as the lone Democrat, Wilbert Collins, lost his seat on the County Commission to State Rep. John Smaligo.
It would be easy for victorious legislative and local Republicans to blame the national disaster on national issues, but the issue that brought about regime change on Capitol Hill this year is one that divides the Republican Party at every level of government.
It's the ongoing struggle between the "fair dealers" and the "wheeler dealers." In the first group, you have those who believe government should provide efficient basic services and fairly-applied laws for the benefit of all Americans. It's a view of government that generates passionate support and can attract voters across the partisan divide.
On the other side you have those who see government as an exercise in mutual back scratching: You do special favors for special people, and they arrange for the funds to keep you in power.
Should government provide a fair foundation for all or should it be, in Jack Abramoff's famous phrase, a "favor factory" for a favored few?
Exit polls showed corruption as the number one reason that voters rejected Republican control of Congress. One congressman went to jail, another had been indicted, the House majority leader was arrested, and countless more were tarred with the appearance of granting access, earmarking Federal contracts, and pushing special-interest legislation in return for campaign cash, all of it taking place with the implied consent of the House leadership.
It helped that the 2006 model Democratic congressional candidate bore no resemblance to Michael Dukakis in a tank. In key districts, Democrats ran candidates with military records, candidates who dissented from the Democratic party line on issues like abortion, gay rights, and gun control, candidates who seemed at ease talking about their personal faith or holding a hunting rifle.
In the past, Republican campaigns could motivate their own activists and some voters to defeat that sort of moderate Democrat with this argument: "The local Democratic candidate may be a good guy, but we can't afford to turn over Congress to the left-wingers who would control the committees." This year, the apparent capitulation of Republican leadership to the seduction of power neutralized that argument. Republican promises that bold government reform was just beyond the next election were no longer credible.
Not only did corruption and greasy power-mongering turn off swing voters, it demoralized loyal grassroots Republicans. I've heard the same story from many conservative activist friends: They gladly took time off work and away from family pursuits to help out in 2004, but this year they just couldn't get excited about it.
Two years ago, they were motivated to buttonhole friends and knock on neighbors' doors to urge them to vote for principled conservatives like Tom Coburn.
This year, the same people, wearied of trying to defend the indefensible, found better things to do.
That hurt Republicans up and down the ballot. It even hurt good guys like Mark Liotta, the state rep from eastern north Tulsa who lost his seat despite his leadership in doubling the state roads budget without raising taxes.
I noticed the same lack of energy on the World Wide Web. In 2004, conservative bloggers took great joy in taking apart Democratic talking points on a daily basis. This year the same bloggers tended to weigh in late in the game, if at all.
It comes down to this observation from the political genius who beat a sitting president with a 91% approval rating. Bill Clinton told a Democratic fundraising dinner before the election, anticipating victory a few days later, "The reason we [Democrats] are at this moment is that they [Republicans] do not represent faithfully the Republicans and the more conservative independents in the country."
The seed of redemption for congressional Republicans is that it was Republicans who helped expose the problem. In the House, Arizona's Jeff Flake forced his colleagues to vote up or down on individual egregious examples of pork barrel spending. (Tulsa's John Sullivan was one of about 60 congressmen to support Flake's efforts at fiscal restraint.)
In the Senate, Oklahoma's own Tom Coburn pushed for and passed a bill to open earmarks up to public scrutiny. The success or failure of budget hawk Mike Pence's bid for House Republican leader will be an early indication whether the surviving congressional Republicans are serious about reform.
But there are worrisome signs that Republicans in the Oklahoma legislature are about to travel the same perilous path as their congressional counterparts.
Last Thursday the newly-elected House Republican Caucus reaffirmed Lance Cargill of Harrah as their nominee for Speaker of the House, choosing Cargill over Oklahoma City Rep. Mike Reynolds. Some Republican capitol insiders are worried about the result, seeing the potential for an Oklahoma version of the corrupt "favor factory" that brought down the Republican majority in Congress.
A series of articles in our sister publication, the Oklahoma Gazette, Ok City's alternative newsweekly, earlier this year explored lobbyist complaints that Cargill was running a "pay for play" system via his leadership PAC, Republican PAC to the Future.
Cargill, as House majority leader, controlled the flow of legislation, and the message came through loud and clear that if a lobbyist wanted his client's bill heard, he'd have to bring in some contributions to Cargill's PAC.
Cargill was dumped as majority leader in March. Behind the scenes, it's said that his abrasive leadership style and fundraising tactics were the reasons for the ouster.
Once freed from leadership responsibilities, Cargill, I am told, worked on using his accumulated PAC cash to win friends in the caucus. In June he won an election for speaker-designate, an election marked by irregularities and arm-twisting. Legislators feared losing important committee assignments or drawing a primary opponent in the next election if they openly opposed Cargill.
Already in the last legislature we saw questionable bills--special deals for special people, not sound policy--find their way through the process. There was the attempt to craft tax credits like those used for Great Plains Airlines to benefit someone who wants to redevelop Shangri-La resort. There were attempts by developers to use state law to override local zoning and planning ordinances.
These dodgy bills made it through most of the legislative process before they were discovered by citizens and stopped. They got as far as they did, winning cosponsors and floor votes, because legislators believed their colleagues, who told them, "Don't worry, this is nothing controversial."
It took a last-minute bipartisan public outcry to stop the bills.
The most amazing result of the night was Ernest Istook's drubbing at the hands of Governor Brad Henry. You'd expect a sacrificial lamb or a perennial also-ran to get 33% of the vote, not a respectable veteran congressman from the state's largest city. Istook lagged every other statewide candidate, even Bill "Kevlar textbooks" Crozier.
But Henry governed as a moderate, signed some Republican legislation, and benefited from higher state revenues from high oil prices. Fairly or not, Bob Sullivan succeeded in tying Istook to Abramoff, pork barrel, and insider deals in Washington. Most grassroots activists backed Sullivan and James Williamson in the primary and weren't as enthused about helping Istook in the fall campaign.
Given that the Abramoff scandal centered around Indian gaming, it's interesting that voters didn't connect the dots between Henry's support for casinos and tribal cigarette compacts and the large tribal-related campaign contributions he received in 2002. Only Treasurer candidate Dan Keating made it an issue.
Here in Tulsa County, we saw several wins for fair-dealing Republicans and an end to the cozy insider deals that have characterized the County Commission over the last four years. Bob Dick, long the dominant figure in county government and the driving force behind most of those deals, has been replaced by Fred Perry. Wilbert Collins, who served as Dick's right-hand man, was replaced by John Smaligo.
Perry and Smaligo both ran on a back-to-basics platform, refocusing county government on its core functions: road maintenance and law enforcement in unincorporated areas, record keeping, and operation of the courthouse and jail. Voters may be pleased with Vision 2025 and 4-to-Fix-the-County, but they sent a message that they're ready for a County Commission that will finish what's underway, instead of launching a new and massive taxpayer-funded project.
While former Democratic County Assessor Jack Gordon deserves praise for his tough stand against questionable out-of-state "non-profits" who were letting their tax-exempt apartment complexes rot, County Assessor Ken Yazel won bipartisan respect for fairly assessing all properties, even those owned by the very wealthy and very powerful. Yazel cut his own department's budget, which in turn cut costs to local school districts, and as a member of the County Budget Board, he helped find savings in other departments as well.
Republicans won Congress in 1994 by presenting a clear and positive reform agenda, promising to bring an end to the insider deals and perquisites that had brought Congress into disrepute. The Republican leadership lost Congress in 2006 because they abandoned their reform agenda and embraced the questionable practices of the past, choosing power over principle.
It falls to those of us who are active in state and county Republican Party organizations to police our own, to expose and root out bad governance by our own people before the Democrats have the chance.
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