BY TOM GUILD
Editor’s Note: Tom Guild was the 2012 Democratic nominee for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District seat. In this essay, he analyzes the Democratic Party’s long decline in Oklahoma and assesses the future for progressivism in our state. A retired University of Central Oklahoma professor, Guild was a founder of the Brennan Society, a group that promotes progressive ideals, issues and candidates.
Why is Oklahoma currently a very conservative Republican bastion? Oklahoma became a state in 1907 during the bubbling up of a national progressive movement. Teddy Roosevelt was famous for busting up “big” things like business. He made an ill-fated promise to not run for another term as president in 1908. This led to the regime of his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft, who was a great disappointment to TR and a welcome surprise to big business and the status quo. TR ran as the Bull Moose third party progressive in 1912 and finished second to the new president Woodrow Wilson. In the early days of socialist elective politics in America, the socialist candidates often ran as well or better in Oklahoma than in the other states. Oklahoma was trending towards prairie populism in many respects. By the 1930’s and the election of Franklin Roosevelt, Oklahoma had become a reliably Democratic state.
Oklahoma continued to be governed by the New Deal coalition throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In the early ‘50s Oklahoma elected Raymond Gary as governor. Although a Democrat, Gary was very conservative in many respects. Oklahoma was represented in the U.S. Senate by the legendary Democrat Robert S. Kerr. Kerr carried enormous clout in the U.S. Senate and brought home the bacon in abundance for his home state. In 1958, J. Howard Edmondson ran his famous “prairie fire” campaign and was elected governor in a big landslide. In 1962, the Democratic Party was badly split in the primary and runoff. The split led to the election of Henry Bellmon from Billings, as the first Republican governor in state history. The rural/urban split in the Democratic Party allowed the election of a second Republican governor, Dewey Bartlett, in 1966 and election of the first Republican attorney general in state history, G.T. Blankenship.
Bellmon benefitted from a big chunk of votes in the traditionally Democratic rural areas, whereas Bartlett was elected on the strength of large margins in the big metropolitan areas. The state Legislature, congressional delegation, and statewide offices otherwise remained firmly in Democratic hands.
In 1970, Oklahoma returned to its Democratic traditions and elected the Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Hall from Tulsa by a small margin. Hall ran extremely well in the traditionally Democratic rural areas and pulled ahead when those late were reported. At least one national network had called the race for Bartlett on election night.
Even as the GOP slowly gained a little traction for a few years in statewide offices, the congressional delegation remained nearly completely Democratic. Bob Kerr died suddenly and the iconic Bud Wilkinson was unable to capture a U.S. Senate seat as a Republican in 1964 – demolished in the LBJ landslide. For a short time liberal lion Fred R. Harris held a seat in the U.S. Senate.
It took until 1968 for the first Republican candidate, former Gov. Bellmon, to win a place in the U.S. Senate in modern day Oklahoma politics by wresting the Senate seat from the venerable and popular incumbent, Democrat Mike Monroney. In 1972, the recently defeated Dewey Bartlett rose from the ashes and was elected to the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma. He had thousands of billboards all over the state that said: Dewey Bartlett … Nixon Needs him. In the last electoral hurrah for Richard Nixon before the Watergate scandal exploded, Nixon’s coattails were long enough to elect Bartlett in 1972.
In the depths of Watergate, Bellmon was very narrowly re-elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974 over the extremely popular Democratic congressman from the old second district, Ed Edmondson.
Ever so slowly Republicans were becoming somewhat more electable to Congress from Oklahoma, especially the Senate.
The venerable Carl Albert, Oklahoma’s Little Giant from Little Dixie and the old third congressional district, came within an eyelash of becoming president due to his powerful position as the Democratic speaker of the U.S. House. When Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace, Albert was for a short time next in line to the American throne.
The bad news for Democrats was that presidential candidates were becoming less competitive in Oklahoma in presidential contests. In 1968, the Democratic presidential nominee Hubert H. Humphrey was crippled by the third party candidacy of George Wallace, the southern segregationist from Alabama. This allowed Richard Nixon’s narrow victory in 1968.
David Hall was engulfed in a scandal near the end of his term as governor. Hall ran for re-election, and was challenged by the potent Clem McSpadden, and a dark-horse challenger from Seminole, David Boren. Boren and his “Boren Broom Brigade” promised to sweep out the old guard. His father had been a congressman, so a case could have easily been made that David Boren represented the old guard. In politics perception is reality.
Hall was damaged goods and finished third in the Democratic primary. McSpadden ran first, but he lacked enough political strength to beat the broom brigade, and Boren surged to a victory in the runoff election.
The Republicans nominated state Sen. Jim Inhofe over his Senate colleague Denzil Garrison. Boren was running as a reformer and so was Inhofe. Boren had become a political phenomenon overnight. In the November general election Boren carried 73 of the state’s 77 counties [losing only Tulsa, Nowata, Washington, and Major counties]. Boren crushed Inhofe. The state Legislature remained firmly in control of the Democratic Party as did most of the county offices in the vast majority of the 77 counties statewide.
Boren governed as a centrist. He had once been the butt of jokes among his colleagues in the state Legislature, but as they say in dog sled racing, “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Boren now had tens of thousands of politicos as his “best” friends. These newly found friends had laughed and scoffed at him and marginalized his campaign for governor when he first announced his candidacy.
David Hall was indicted and convicted of political corruption immediately following his term as governor and spent time in a federal penitentiary. Dewey Bartlett was losing his battle with cancer and not able to seek another term in the U.S. Senate.
Boren withstood sensational accusations regarding his personal life in the Democratic Primary, and easily beat former OSU President Bob Kamm to capture a seat in the U.S. Senate.
George Nigh’s election in 1978 and easy re-election in 1982 ushered in an era of good feelings in Oklahoma politics. Nigh had served for decades as the lieutenant governor. He had spoken at hundreds of graduations, fish fries, receptions, installations, and other events over the years. He had even served short stints as acting governor for various reasons.
He won a tough primary and runoff in 1978 and glided to re-election in 1982 when he became the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate in state history to carry Major County. The economy went south during Nigh’s second term.
He later served a five-year stint as president of Central State University, that experienced a name change to the University of Central Oklahoma. Nigh had a knack for remembering names and an easy relationship with a wide variety of Oklahomans all the way up the political and economic spectrum.
Nigh tends towards egalitarianism, but was stubbornly mainstream and not polarizing in his politics.
Bellmon, the father of the modern Republican Party in Oklahoma, succeeded Nigh as governor in 1986, much to the chagrin of hard right conservatives and to the delight of many civil libertarians. Democratic progressive David Walters followed Bellmon for one term as governor in 1990. Walters was likely unfairly tarred by a somewhat complicated campaign finance “scandal” and almost run out of elective politics by the Daily Oklahoman and his political enemies on what seemed to many observers to be trumped up criminal charges.
1994 was a watershed year for the changing of the partisan political guard in Oklahoma. Frank Keating was elected as a Republican governor and served two terms. Also in 1994 King David Boren renounced his throne in the U.S. Senate and followed his passion to become the president of the University of Oklahoma.
Jim Inhofe moved from the U.S. House to Boren’s unexpired Senate seat by defeating moderate-moderate conservative U.S. House colleague Dave McCurdy. This special election more than ever indicated that “blue dog” Democrats were fast becoming a dying breed in Oklahoma electoral politics. McCurdy was bright, energetic, and popular, but still was no match for the now very conservative Inhofe. The march towards a 100% Republican congressional delegation was nearly complete.
Ronald Reagan was controversial, to say the least. Reagan raised taxes as governor of California. He raised taxes and raised the debt ceiling multiple times as president. His die-hard supporters today invoke his name when opposing tax hikes or raising the debt ceiling. A little bit of Alice in Wonderland sometimes goes a long way in American politics.
He used the Moral Majority, the creation of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, to his political advantage, but often gave only lip service to the stated goals of the Moral Majority, and did little to substantively advance their agenda.
He was the darling of the Falwell group, while at the same time being the first divorced president, surviving a messy and well-publicized break up with his first movie star wife, Jane Wyman.
One thing is certain: Oklahomans were buying what Reagan was selling when he ran for president in 1968, 1976, 1980, and for re-election as president in 1984. Pollsters found a surprise in the polling in Oklahoma for the 1980 general election between Reagan, Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, and Republican-turned-third party candidate John Anderson.
Reagan was polling as much, or more, support in Oklahoma among Democrats as was the Democratic incumbent president. Reagan’s popularity in Oklahoma among so-called “Reagan Democrats” hastened the realignment from the Democratic Party to the GOP.
One of Reagan’s fervent acolytes, state Sen. Don Nickles, a Republican from Ponca City, stormed the Oklahoma political stage in 1980 by wresting the nomination for the U.S. Senate to replace Henry Bellmon, from a megabucks contender representing the Noble family and Tulsa philanthropist John Zink. Nickles and Zink ran close in the primary that eliminated Ed Noble, and Nickles pulled away to a convincing win in the runoff. He fairly easily dispatched a strong Democratic nominee, Andy Coats, in the general election.
The one thing Nickles brought to the table that no other Oklahoma Republican U.S. senator had before, was a long tenure in the Senate. He served from 1980 until January 2005, when he was replaced by GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Coburn. By the time Nickles retired from the Senate, after an unsuccessful revolt against Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, Oklahoma had become a Republican state in all but voter registration figures that still showed many more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote in the state.
Today, many of those formerly Blue Dog or Reagan Democrats have joined the GOP or re-registered as independents.
Democrats have come full circle in the history of the state of Oklahoma. In the first decade of the 21st Century, Democrats lost control of the state House of Representatives and a few years later lost control of the state Senate. Prior to this takeover of the House, Republicans had only controlled the state house for a two-year period in 1921-22 after the Warren Harding presidential landslide in 1920. Until the 21st Century takeover, the GOP had never controlled the state Senate.
Takeover of the state Legislature was hastened by weak showings in Oklahoma by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004, and President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Kerry and Obama both had identical percentages in 2004 and 2008, with Kerry running somewhat stronger in the traditionally Democratic rural areas in 2004 and Obama running a bit stronger in the urban areas in 2008. Obama ran a few tenths of a percentage point worse in 2012 in Oklahoma than in 2008.
Republicans have quickly strengthened their grip on the state Legislature with a 3-1 advantage in the state Senate and approximately a 2.5-1 advantage in the state House.
Democrats had a good election cycle in 2006 when Democratic Gov. Brad Henry was easily re-elected over Congressman Ernest Istook, and Democrats won all statewide offices on the ballot except Corporation Commissioner.
The success was fleeting, wiped out when Congresswoman Mary Fallin was easily elected governor in 2010 by dispatching Lt. Gov. Jari Askins in the general election. Askins had survived a brutal primary with Attorney General Drew Edmondson. Askins won the primary by a political whisker. Both Askins and Edmondson were accomplished, strong, and attractive candidates, but it didn’t change the dynamics of the election.
In 2010, Republicans won every statewide state race, and now hold every single statewide state office, including all three Corporation Commissioners. To add insult to injury, when Blue Dog Democrat Dan Boren, son of OU President David Boren, voluntarily retired from the U.S. House in 2012, Republicans captured the lone remaining Democratic seat on the congressional delegation, by taking the 2nd Congressional District.
2014 finds that Democrats have no representation in statewide state office and no representation in the congressional delegation, and are badly outnumbered in both houses of the state Legislature. The Democratic lead in voter registration by 2014 had shrunk to a mere 5,000 in recently released figures from the Oklahoma State Election Board. This is almost certainly the last election cycle for the foreseeable future, when Democrats will outnumber Republicans among registered voters in the Sooner State.
Conclusion and Recommendations
It is abundantly clear that the Democratic Party in Oklahoma has become a weak and relatively uncompetitive institution.
The metamorphosis from 800-pound gorilla to a minority party losing ground nearly every election cycle has taken place over many decades.
Republicans have long played demagogue on race, immigration, God-gays-and guns, the Panama Canal Treaty, the federal “takeover” of health care, public schools, etc. to convince Oklahoma voters to vote against their best interests.
It is also a tactic for absolving the GOP of their failures to provide health care, healthy and well-funded public schools etc.
Progressives must fight back by continuing to building their own organizations and infrastructure to supplement whatever support the Democratic Party can afford to progressives running for public office in our state.
There are a number of good progressive organizations such as Change Oklahoma, the Brennan Society, the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, the Peace House, Oklahomans to Abolish the Death Penalty, LULAC, the NAACP, the Sierra Club, OKC Pride, and many others.
One of the weaknesses is that these good progressive organizations don’t always coordinate their activities and their efforts. To be successful more needs to be done in that regard.
Progressives need to be able to recruit, train, and fund progressive candidates in Oklahoma to reverse course and put public education, health care, civil and voting rights, protecting the middle and working classes, and protecting the environment back in the forefront of public policy in our state.
Carlos Ortiz and I, and the leadership and membership of Brennan Society and Oklahomans of South American origin have started a dialogue about starting a Brennan Institute that would be formed for the purposes of cultural and political engagement in our state.
Portfolios on a governing board would be afforded to leaders willing to join the effort, like leaders of Change Oklahoma, the Brennan Society, the OCRJ, LULAC, the NAACP, the Peace House, Oklahoma leaders from the Hispanic Community who hail from South America, the Sierra Club, the Peace House, Oklahomans opposed to the death penalty, OKC Pride, and many other groups already in existence.
The Brennan Institute would have a permanent office, perhaps stand alone, or perhaps using a space available donated by one of the progressive groups in our state. We are in the very preliminary stages of working out the details for the new institute.
We have an emergency on our hands, and we must urgently come together to do what we can to take the necessary steps to move our state forward again.
If not us … who? If not now, when?