POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 15, 2010:
Not Even Feeling Blue
Give up all hope, ye who enter! Oklahoma's red-state badge keeps even the most courageous Democrats way post bellum
It's certainly not easy being a Democrat in Oklahoma anymore, particularly if you're running for federal office.
That notion has been acknowledged by most state political observers for the better part of 20 years now, when Oklahoma's U.S. House of Representatives and Senate delegations became almost exclusively Republican, remaining that way ever since. It's not a situation that's likely to change anytime soon, according to a handful of Oklahoma Democratic operatives and objective journalists.
The only state congressional seat Democrats have managed to retain much of a hold on for even part of the last two decades is the 2nd District in eastern Oklahoma -- traditionally the state's most Democratic territory, in terms of voter registration. Democrat Dan Boren has held the seat since 2005, continuing a decades-long dominance for his party in the district that began in 1923 and was interrupted only once -- from 1995 to 2001 -- when Republican Tom Coburn was its representative.
Elsewhere in the state, Democrats have been shut out for the better part of the last two decades as Oklahoma voters have taken a hard turn to the right. Arnold Hamilton, longtime Tulsa journalist and publisher of the uber progressive Oklahoma Observer newspaper in Oklahoma City, as well as author of "The Capitolist" column in Urban Tulsa Weekly, likens the task of running for Congress in the state as a Democrat to "tilting at windmills."
Don Hoover, veteran Democratic campaign strategist from Edmond who is serving as the media consultant for Democrat Jari Askins' gubernatorial campaign, glumly agreed.
"Yeah, pretty much," he said. "Boren's district is an exception. I can't really think of any other."
Republicans appear to have a solid hold on the state's other four U.S. House seats, with the possible exception of the 5th District in central Oklahoma, where Republican Mary Fallin is giving up her seat to run for governor against Askins. That leaves James Lankford, who won a bitter primary battle for the GOP nomination, running against Democratic nominee Billy Coyle.
Acknowledging that Republicans have held the seat for the last 40 years, Hamilton said Coyle will have a tough time winning the election. But he sees some evidence that the district is not as solidly red as it has been in the past.
"In that district two years ago, Jim Roth -- an openly gay county commissioner from Oklahoma City -- carried that district (in a Corporation Commission race), and (state Sen.) Andrew Rice (an Oklahoma City Democrat) came within like 2 percentage points of (Republican incumbent Jim) Inhofe in that district (in their 2008 U.S. Senate race). So that district is turning the tiniest bit purplish."
Hamilton also said state voters periodically will surprise the experts.
"Oklahoma is counter-intuitive on these things a lot of the time -- just ask Steve Largent," he said, referring to the former Republican Tulsa congressman who was thought to have an easy road to the governor's mansion in 2002 before Democrat Brad Henry upset him.
Hoover is more skeptical about the 5th District.
"The reason people would say that is, with the addition of Pottawatomie and Seminole counties (to the district) because of redistricting, the Democrats have a slight advantage in voter registration -- but not in voter behavior," he said.
Even so, a well-financed, experienced Democratic candidate conceivably could have a shot at winning the seat at some point, he said.
It's that "well-financed" part that could be particularly troublesome for any Democratic candidate. Pam Fleischaker, a longtime columnist for the Oklahoma (City) Gazette and a strategist for Democrat Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign, believes the state's reputation as a Republican hotbed is well established inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C., the source of much congressional campaign financing.
"I'd say most people in Washington who are political operatives don't think there is much of a Democratic party in Oklahoma," she said.
That perception, combined with the looming loss of such party stalwarts as Gov. Brad Henry and Attorney General Drew Edmondson from the scene, doesn't leave much room for optimism, she said.
"We hardly have any statewide leadership," she said of Democrats. "Dan Boren is it, and he's probably crazed from having to do it by himself."
In light of that, "I can't imagine the Democratic National Committee is going to put any money into congressional races in Oklahoma," she said.
"I would be very surprised if they did anything because their resources are limited," he said. "They'll invest in campaigns they have a good opportunity to win."
Hamilton and Hoover believe the predicament of Oklahoma Democrats is not much different than it has been for quite some time.
"No, not really. Since redistricting (almost a decade ago), it's probably not any different," Hoover said. "What used to be the 4th District was competitive at one time, but it's not now, and it hasn't been for the last 10 years."
But Fleischaker believes things are even worse for Oklahoma Democrats now, given President Obama's weakness in the state -- a factor she fears will have a strongly negative impact on Democrats here this fall. In fact, she said, short of recruiting a "celebrity" candidate -- she cited former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer as a hypothetical example -- she doesn't believe Democrats have a realistic chance of winning any of the state's congressional seats besides Boren's these days.
"We've become a real aberration, especially compared to our own roots and history," she said, referring to Oklahoma's early status as a hotbed of populist and progressive politics, as well as the way Democrats dominated the state's political scene for most of its existence.
Hamilton believes the "50 State Strategy" -- a plan aimed at winning elections at every level in every region of the country -- trumpeted by former Democratic National Committee leader Howard Dean basically kept the state afloat over the past few years in the arena of congressional races. But even though the DNC Web site still features a prominent link to the plan, Hamilton sees no evidence it is being seriously promoted anymore.
"I think Oklahoma Democrats are kind of on our own," he said.
Hoover put it even more plainly.
"What else are they going to say?" he said of what he regards as the DNC's lip service to the "50 State Strategy." "They've got more than they can handle elsewhere. I would be very surprised to see them come into play at all in Oklahoma, with the exception of Dan Boren, who may very well not need any help."
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