In 2018, all the necessary ingredients to flip a congressional seat were at play in Oklahoma’s 5th; shifting demographics, a trickle-down effect of national politics and some voters willing to stray from their party.
The result was a win for Rep. Kendra Horn, the Oklahoma City Democrat who pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the midterm elections.
Last month, Republican voters finally decided on their candidate to try and take back the seat. State Sen. Stephanie Bice defeated Terry Neese in a closely contested runoff.
Over the next nine weeks, Bice and Horn will compete for voters in some key communities across the 5th Congressional District.
Horn’s upset of former congressman Steve Russell two years ago was aided by the fact that she performed well in many suburban communities that had long been Republican strongholds. Like much of the nation, Oklahoma City’s suburbs saw a leftward shift during the 2018 elections, in part because of anti-Trump sentiment.
But Horn wasn’t the only Democrat to outperform expectations in the suburbs as gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson also won several Edmond and northwest Oklahoma City precincts. While Edmondson lost to Gov. Kevin Stitt statewide, his strength in some suburban communities appeared to be because of his support of a teacher pay raise and increased education funding, even if it meant raising taxes on some industries.
In this year’s Republican runoff campaign, Neese criticized Bice for voting in favor of a teacher pay raise as a member of the state Senate.
But that may have been a misjudgment by Neese because suburban voters have recently voted out lawmakers who opposed the teacher pay raise and rewarded those who backed it.
Bice may also hope to do well in the suburbs because her own state Senate district overlaps with some suburban neighborhoods in the 5th district.
However, in the 13 precincts that are in both Bice’s Senate district and the 5th Congressional District, Horn won just one in 2018, which means Bice may not be able to steal too many votes from Horn because of support in her own Senate district.
Bice will likely try to cast Horn as an extremist, especially to right-of-center voters in the suburbs.
That could be a difficult strategy as Horn is a self-described moderate who has been willing to criticize her own party.
Where Republicans may be able to paint Horn as out of touch is on the issue of oil and gas, a sector that impacts many suburban households.
Following reports that the U.S. Chamber was prepared to endorse Horn, Chad Warmington, president of the State Chamber, wrote a letter asking them to reconsider their endorsement, which The Oklahoman first reported last week.
“I question how the U.S. Chamber could endorse a candidate who consistently voted against the largest industry in Oklahoma, employing over 90,000 workers throughout the state,” Warmington wrote.
Horn responded by pointing out her opposition to a fracking ban, which has been proposed by some in her party.
The neighborhoods of central Oklahoma City have recently become much more progressive politically, which can be seen in recent elections for the state Legislature, city council, and school board.
Earlier this summer, Rep. Jason Dunnington, a three-term Democrat representing a House district north of downtown, was defeated in a primary race against Mauree Turner, who ran to his left.
Dunnington had a progressive voting record. But his public persona took on more of a moderate and bipartisan spirit, something Turner ran against.
In some ways, Horn profiles more as a Dunnington than a Turner, and while voters in this district aren’t likely to shift support to Bice, they may be disappointed by some of Horn’s positions.
“(Horn) has taken some votes that have not gone unnoticed by some of the more progressive people who live in central Oklahoma City,” said Aaron Wilder, a political strategist who worked for Turner’s campaign.
Wilder said Horn’s vote against a federal minimum wage increase was an example of a vote that disappointed many progressive voters.
“But with Trump on the ballot … I don’t think enthusiasm is something that any Democrat is going to have trouble with this election cycle,” Wilder said.
Central Oklahoma City has also been home to numerous demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism, which means there will be a lot of attention on how Horn and Bice address these issues.
Members of the city council representing central and northeast Oklahoma City pushed for policing reforms earlier this summer, including the diversion of some police funds to social services.
While Oklahoma County represents the bulk of the 5th district’s population, the district also includes parts of Seminole and Pottawatomie counties, two rural regions with strong Republican support.
Bice can’t win on these two counties alone, but a victory will surely require strong turnout for her in these areas.
Neese had her strongest support in the runoff in these counties and Bice may have to work to transfer that enthusiasm to herself, especially after a campaign that strongly attacked Neese.
“She needs to make sure she can appeal to Neese voters,” said Richard Johnson, a professor of political science at Oklahoma City University. “The race got nasty between (Bice and Neese) and you wonder how that impacts Neese supporters. One of the things you have to keep in mind is if you don’t have your party completely behind you then you are going to lose.”
While Wilder said a desire to vote out Trump will engage many Democrats who may not be as excited about Horn, he predicted the same type of energy for hardcore Trump supporters who will benefit Bice.
“There’s not going to be an enthusiasm problem for Trump’s base,” Wilder said.
Trump won 70 percent of the vote in Seminole and Pottawatomie counties in 2016, and voters who are energized to defend the president will likely cast their vote for Bice, even if they aren’t as excited about her.
The inner suburbs in west Oklahoma City, Bethany and Warr Acres may be the most purple of the 5th district’s communities. This area is shifting more Democratic, evidenced by recent state House and Senate races that have flipped longtime Republican seats.
But some of these precincts were the most competitive in the district in 2018 and Bice may be able to win back some votes.
In 2018, Horn beat Russell by fewer than 3,400 votes. Because turnout in some of the inner suburban precincts declined from the previous midterm election cycle, Bice could make up the difference with a strong performance in these communities.
“Impeachment was the deal breaker for me,” said Vicki Spaan, a resident of northwest Oklahoma City who voted for Horn in 2018 but plans to support Bice this year.
Spaan said she knew of other voters like herself who had supported Horn but were upset about her vote to impeach Trump.
This is also a part of the district becoming much more diverse and positions on social justice, immigration and education will likely receive a lot of attention.
A lot of other factors will be at play in this year’s election, including money.
Horn has a significant advantage in spending, according to the latest campaign finance reports, but Bice should see a fundraising boost after her primary win.
Outside groups will also likely enter the race, especially with the seat expected to be highly competitive.