By Sean Murphy
OKLAHOMA CITY —
In a state essentially controlled by Democrats for nearly a century after statehood, Republicans in Oklahoma are hoping to capture all five U.S. House seats on Tuesday and wrap up a devastating decade for the Democratic Party in the state.
While an occasional Republican has held high office in the state, in the past 10 years Oklahoma has witnessed Democrats lose control of both chambers of the Legislature and every statewide elected office.
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If Democrats cannot hold onto the 2nd Congressional District seat in eastern Oklahoma being given up by retiring U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, the entire congressional delegation could be held by the GOP.
“I think it’s part of a natural progression that we’ve really seen over the last 50 years in this state,” said Pat McFerron, a Republican pollster and political strategist. “The last time we voted for a Democrat for president was 1964. The last time we elected a Democrat to an open U.S. Senate seat was 1978. And the last time Democrats had a majority in Congress (in Oklahoma) was 1992.
“It’s an alignment with our conservative ideology ... that have shown a disconnect with the national Democratic Party,” McFerron said.
Democrats have fielded a candidate in each of the state’s five congressional districts, but three races feature strong incumbents in U.S. Reps. Frank Lucas in the 3rd District, Tom Cole in the 4th District and James Lankford in the 5th District. The 1st District seat that includes Tulsa and some surrounding counties is an open seat after Republican Jim Bridenstine knocked off five-term incumbent U.S. Rep. John Sullivan in the primary. Democrat John Olson is running for the post, but the district hasn’t elected a Democrat to the post since 1972.
The Democrats best hope for maintaining a piece of blue on Oklahoma’s congressional map is the 2nd Congressional District in eastern Oklahoma, which stretches across parts of 26 counties from the state’s northern border with Kansas to Texas and the Red River in the south. Republican plumbing company owner Markwayne Mullin of Westville faces Democrat Rob Wallace, a longtime state and federal prosecutor. Independent Michael Fulks of Heavener also is on the ballot.
And while registered Democrats in the district outnumber Republicans by a more than 2-to-1 margin, the district is growing increasingly conservative. President Barack Obama failed to win a single county in the district — or the state — in 2008, and he barely topped 42 percent among Democratic primary voters in the district in March against little-known, poorly funded opponents.
The voter intensity against Obama is so strong in the district that voters will head to the polls to cast a ballot against the president, “even if it’s 150 degrees outside and there’s 8 feet of crushed glass between them and the polling place,” said Ben Odom, a former Democratic Party official and the party’s nominee for the 4th Congressional District in 1998.
Odom blames much of the Democrats’ demise in Oklahoma on the national party’s shift to the left and the ability of the Republican Party to link that national message to Democrats in Oklahoma.
“The national Democratic Party is increasingly urban-based, and so understanding rural and small-town issues and voters is a real challenge for the national party,” Odom said. “You’ve got to have a message for Oklahoma Democrats, a message that’s crafted differently, to succeed here.”
Meanwhile, at the state level, Democrats are hoping to slow the losses to Republicans in the House and Senate. Republicans, who currently hold a 32-16 advantage in the state Senate, already have added two seats to their column by virtue of Democrats failing to field candidates in two districts where Democratic incumbents are stepping down. Republicans also are competing for three open seats previously held by Democrats, while defending just two Republican-held open seats.
In the House, where Republicans enjoy a 67-31 advantage with three seats vacant, there are 34 seats up for grabs in Tuesday’s election. Sixteen Republican incumbents are facing challenges, along with seven Democrats. Eleven seats are open.
Besides the presidential race and a congressional race in every district, each Oklahoma voter will have a chance to decide six state questions and whether to retain judges on the state’s appellate courts.
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy