Despite the Republicans’ 2001 Right-to-work victory and their growing dominance among Oklahoma’s federal officials in Washington, D.C., Democrat Brad Carson had recently won back a Congressional seat, and the party stubbornly retained a narrowing advantage among elected officials in the state. Then, in 2002, Democrats scored one of the most stunning upsets in Oklahoma electoral history. Shawnee native and state senator Brad Henry won a dramatic, three-man gubernatorial race. Henry parlayed several factors into his razor-thin defeat of favored Republican congressman and pro football hall of famer Steve Largent of Tulsa:
1) Henry’s pointed concern for teachers, which his wife Kim was, and his intentions to facilitate pay raises for them contrasted with Largent’s bold but blunt and controversial vision for consolidating the state’s public school districts into countywide organizations.
2) The surging, one-off voter turnout of the state’s rural cockfighting constituency, concentrated in southeast Oklahoma’s Little Dixie, a traditional Democratic bastion. Largent publicly stood against this brutal “sport,” which pitted roosters armed with razor blades or sharp spurs against one another, to the bloody death. Henry did not.
3) The third party candidacy of conservative Independent Gary Richardson. The Muskogee native was a past and future Republican like Largent, including when he helped bring scores of corrupt County Commissioners to ground in the 1980s as a U.S. Attorney (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 13). Richardson siphoned off 14% of the statewide vote.
Henry disputed this factor, citing his organization’s post-election polling that suggested Richardson actually drew more votes from him than Largent. Many observers disagreed. The Associated Press cited Richardson’s primary strength in the areas Largent needed to win big, and which Frank Keating had: “Gary Richardson grabbed big chunks of votes in urban areas where Largent ran the strongest.”
4) An RV road circuit to meet local citizens in Walmart parking lots across the state. With this and other efforts, Henry ran circles around the overconfident Largent campaign. His luminous wife and campaign manager Kim, renowned for her devoted work on behalf of education, children, and drug prevention, accompanied him.
Democrats thus had cause for hope and confidence. They continued to rule all three branches of the state government, including a supreme court dominated by Democratic gubernatorial appointees, as well as most statewide offices.
Just two years later, though, the Republicans pulled off their own historic feat with a resounding capture of the state House for the first time since 1922. Democrats narrowly kept control of the Senate. Two years after that, in 2006, in another reversal, Democrats swept eight of nine statewide races, including Henry’s smashing re-election, plus a high profile Oklahoma County district attorney race. Defying both state and national trends, the grand lion of Oklahoma political party history seemed to have regained its mojo and perhaps to have weathered the immense adversarial tides.
A closer look, however, suggested trouble for the Democrats. The Republicans had retained their solid House majority and clawed their way to a 24-24 tie in the Senate. Democrats retained the slimmest balance of power there only by the tiebreaking power of Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins of Duncan. Indeed, 2006 would be, for the foreseeable future, the final roar of the state Democracy.
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
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