POSTED ON JUNE 2, 2010:
Current polls portend GOP dominance in state elections, but the minority Democrats have reason to hope
It's over. Done. Finished.
And, yes, the legislative session is complete, too.
Oh ... you thought I was referring to the three-ring festivities at the state Capitol?
Actually, I'm focused on the 2010 elections. If you believe the polls circulating recently in Oklahoma, there's no point in even staging primary, run-off or general elections this year.
A Republican coronation, will it be?
Just think of the millions of taxpayer dollars that could be saved if we didn't bother with balloting -- money that could be diverted to other, essential services crippled by the state's fiscal crisis.
For example, we could easily cover the $2.2 million we normally spend rewarding our best and brightest teachers for earning National Board certification -- bonuses frozen for two years because of the $1.2 billion budget hole.
Of course, no one (save some GOP candidates themselves) would seriously suggest dispensing with elections and awarding all offices to Republicans, based on polls taken in the spring.
There's a reason not to get wrapped up in polls taken three months before the primaries and seven months before the general election.
The pre-balloting conventional wisdom is often wrong.
Can you spell S-t-e-v-e L-a-r-g-e-n-t?
There are a myriad of reasons, though, to believe the 2010 elections will not be kind to Oklahoma Democrats.
The state has trended Republican for nearly half a century. Six years ago, the GOP gained a majority in the state House of Representatives for the first time. Two years ago, it took over the state Senate.
Both of Oklahoma's U.S. senators are Republican, as are four of the five members of Congress -- the lone exception is Muskogee's Dan Boren, oft-derided as a DINO (Democrat-in-name-only).
Two years ago, Oklahoma bolstered its claim as America's reddest state when President Obama failed to carry even one of the 77 counties. Given the history of mid-term electoral woes for the party that controls the White House, it's easy to envision GOP gains in Oklahoma without even conducting a poll.
I can tell you many statehouse Democrats are pessimistic, fearing their 26-22 Senate and 62-39 House disadvantages could be made worse in November. All it would take is for Republicans to recapture the governorship and Democrats would be akin to Oklahoma Republicans for most of the 20th Century -- their voices marginalized in a one-party-controlled state government.
The conventional wisdom that a GOP tsunami is building was fueled by a recent Sooner Survey headlined: "2010: End of 'Oklahoma' Democrats?"
It is true that the Sooner Survey's Republican roots run deep -- it is a publication of the political consulting firm (Cole, Hargrave, Snodgrass & Associates) founded by Oklahoma's 4th District GOP Congressman Tom Cole. But it would be unwise to simply dismiss the results as Republican propaganda.
The April 19-22 survey of 500 registered voters (margin of error plus/minus 4.3 percent) found GOP gubernatorial front-runner Mary Fallin with a 22-percentage-point edge over either of the top Democratic contenders, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins and Attorney General Drew Edmondson.
Further, when asked their preferences in a generic state legislative race, surveyed voters gave Republicans a 45 percent to 25 percent advantage over Democrats with 30 percent undecided.
Here's the Democratic dagger, though, as far as the Sooner Survey was concerned: 47 percent of those polled view the Oklahoma Democratic Party as "too liberal." Even 32 percent of registered Democrats see their party in Oklahoma as "too liberal."
You can't sugar coat this: The numbers are troubling for Democrats. If nothing else, they dampen whatever optimism is left that Democrats may be poised for renaissance. As one Democratic senator put it, ruefully: "I don't think we've hit bottom yet."
But there are important details behind the numbers that give context to the Democrats' precarious position -- and may even afford hope that they will be more competitive in Oklahoma again, sooner rather than later.
First, it's hardly second-coming news that Oklahomans are increasingly identifying with the GOP. A Democratic presidential nominee hasn't carried the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. So almost any poll with generic matchups would automatically favor Republicans, even in once reliably Democratic regions such as southeastern Oklahoma's Little Dixie.
Of course, generic won't be on the ballot. Real people, with good ideas and bad, friends and enemies, will be the nominees. And in legislative races, party labels often mean less than personal connections or friendships with the candidates and their families.
The truism "all politics is local" is true for a reason. Just because many Oklahomans wouldn't vote for a Democrat for president doesn't mean they wouldn't vote for a Democrat for governor or state House.
Ask Brad Henry.
Second, the short-term picture may be bleak for Oklahoma Democrats, but the state's demographic trends give them reason for hope long-term.
It is all-but-inevitable that rural Oklahoma -- where rightwing pulpit pounding exerts out-size influence and where communities tend to be more homogenous -- becomes staunchly Republican, though moderate Democrats like Rush Springs' Joe Dorman survive because they connect well with their constituents.
Even if those rural seats slip away, Democrats are better positioned long-term in the state's faster-growing urban centers, where many once reliable Republican neighborhoods are in transition.
Younger, more ethnically-diverse voters are helping revitalize old guard GOP areas, putting Republican legislative incumbents at risk (watch Rep. Dan Sullivan in Tulsa and Rep. David Dank in Oklahoma City).
Third, it can be argued that the GOP statehouse takeover has breathed new life into Democratic constituencies that were moribund after years of the party controlling both legislative houses and, as many times as not, the governorship.
In the session's final weeks, large, noisy groups descended on the Capitol to campaign for reproductive rights (they praised Henry's vetoes of four abortion bills, but were energized by the Legislature's overrides) and the developmentally disabled. They are energized by fear over what will become of vital state services if anti-government zealots control both houses of the Legislature -- and there is no Democratic governor to provide a check-and-balance.
Moreover, without much fanfare, Obama loyalists have hosted dozens of "house parties" across the state, aimed at turning out thousands of Democrats who cast ballots for the first time in the 2008 presidential election. Typically, two-thirds of first-time voters don't cast ballots in the subsequent mid-term election. Just a few turning out in the right precincts, in close legislative races, could make a difference for Democrats this year.
Finally, no one knows what will happen between now and November. American political history is replete with front-runners doomed by gaffes or other mistakes. Few would have believed a little-known Democratic state senator from Shawnee, Brad Henry, could defeat the all-American football hero with movie star good looks, Steve Largent, for governor in 2002. Or that Henry will leave office, after two terms, with among the highest approval ratings ever for an Oklahoma governor.
Democrats clearly have much work to do. But Republicans best understand that hubris and overconfidence can be lethal.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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