With former Republican Joy Hofmeister running for governor, Oklahoma Democrats thought 2022 was their year, but it wasn’t.
So where does the party go now?
Oklahoma Democrats have until now focused the majority of their resources on unwinnable governor’s races at the expense of down-ticket candidates who have better chances of success.
Republicans have dominated the political landscape in Oklahoma for over a decade and control all statewide and federal offices and have a super majority in the Legislature.
Democrats also failed to field a candidate in 74 legislative races this election.
Now the party is shifting its focus.
Alicia Andrews, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said the party plans to shift focus to local, county and legislative races and will actively work to recruit more candidates to run for those seats.
“We are making our plan to rebuild our infrastructure and to expand outside of the urban areas,” Andrews told The Frontier. “So, now it’s more about building our county parties and running candidates in county commission races, county assessor races, school board races and city council.”
For years, Democrats have honed in on growing support in more-urban Oklahoma, Tulsa and Cleveland counties. Races in those areas are now more competitive and oftentimes winnable for the Democrats.
But there’s still not enough support for Democrats outside of more urban areas to win a statewide race.
Hofmeister won the state’s three most populous counties and still lost the race by over 100,000 votes. Democrats are going to have to make inroads in rural counties to change the outcome of future races.
“That means locally investing in down-ballot races, drive turnout and political outreach to communities that traditionally have supported us and ones that we need to win back over, including voters in rural Oklahoma,” said Ward Curtin, a veteran Democratic consultant.
But making inroads in rural Oklahoma won’t be easy, especially with straight-party voting, which Adam Graham, a Democratic consultant and Jena Nelson’s former campaign manager, said is “killing the Oklahoma Democratic Party.”
Data from the Oklahoma State Election Board shows that about 480,000 Oklahomans cast a straight-party ballot with about 69% of those being Republican. Former state Sen. J.J. Dossett, a rural Democrat who represented Owasso, was the only incumbent Democrat to lose re-election this year. He places a lot of the blame on straight-party voting. In Senate District 34, Dossett’s district, over 7,600 people voted straight party. Nearly 5,200 of those were straight-party Republican votes.
“It’s not voting on people, it’s voting on partisanship, which I don’t believe is American,” Dossett said in an interview with The Frontier.
Democrats also face financial challenges with donors after Hofmeister’s defeat. Even more than $15 million in spending from outside groups couldn’t get a Democrat elected statewide in Oklahoma. And other statewide Democratic candidates felt that regardless of how much money was poured into their race, they were always going to be at a disadvantage when it came to running statewide.
This is why many Democratic operatives and elected officials hope to see more financial investment in down-ballot races.
In most state legislative races, $50,000 can help fund essential mail and digital campaign programs as more expensive TV ads often aren’t an option. Hofmeister has proven there are donors out there willing to invest money into a Democrat’s campaign — both directly to the campaign and on the independent expenditure side. Party officials hope a fraction of that spending can be invested in down-ballot races in future elections.
“I might be biased because I’m in the Legislature and I want to see more support but I think about the millions of dollars poured into these races whether it was to go against Stitt or whatever the case may be, but a little bit of that goes a long way in a state legislative race,” said state House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City.
Munson believes the party benefits more from supporting down-ballot candidates than the name at the top of the ticket.
Investment in down-ballot races is critical because voters need to feel comfortable voting for a Democrat who lives in their community before they will support a statewide Democratic candidate in deep-red Oklahoma, she said.
“Until we gain more seats in the Legislature, I don’t know that you see any statewide Democrat winning in the near future,” Munson said. “… To those who have invested in these larger races, kudos to them for sticking their neck out there and going after the most powerful person in the state, but I do hope that they’ll consider looking at (us). We may not be the sexiest or fanciest races on the ballot, but we do make a lot of difference and it will make a difference in terms of what happens in the governor’s mansion.”
Despite the statewide beating, Democrats still believe there were some bright spots this election year. Democrat Vicki Behenna easily beat Republican Kevin Calvey in the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s race. And in Tulsa, Democrats picked up a seat in the state House, flipping District 70 from red to blue with Suzanne Schreiber’s win over Republican Brad Banks.
But the party still doesn’t have a single official elected to statewide or federal office and is in the super-minority in the Legislature and likely will be for the foreseeable future.
Curtin believes the party must evolve because the same old way of doing things isn’t working. Organizing support for Democrats at the local and county level instead of starting from scratch every election year is vital, he said.
“This game is changing and Oklahoma progressives are a decade behind so we need to catch up quicker,” Curtin said.