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Capitol Insider: GOP Registers Election Gains In Deep Red Oklahoma

2020 Presidential Election county-by-county results

As results rolled in on Election Night, November 3rd, Oklahoma Republicans scored more big wins and solidified their hold on the state's politics. President Donald Trump completed another 77-county sweep, the fifth straight presidential election in which the Republican nominee won every county on his way to gaining the state's seven electoral votes. 

Jim Inhofe retained his U.S. Senate seat, Republican Stephanie Bice unseated Democratic incumbent Kendra Horn to grab the Fifth District Congressional seat and Republicans stretched their advantage in the Oklahoma House of Representatives to 82-19. KGOU contributor and political scientist Dr. Keith Gaddie analyzed the state's political landscape in Capitol Insider, as part of KGOU's Oklahoma Engaged election coverage.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider.  I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director, Shawn Ashley. With the Oklahoma General Election over, we're going to talk about what Oklahoma voters did and the direction the state's politics is heading with KGOU contributor political scientist Keith Gaddie. Thanks for being with us, Keith.

Keith Gaddie: Hey, good to be here, Dick.

Shawn Ashley: Keith, Tuesday was a very good day for Republicans in Oklahoma. They retained a U.S. Senate seat. They took back a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and gained five seats in the Oklahoma House with no changes in the state Senate composition. House Democrats lost three of their four rural seats in this election cycle, and no Democrat in the Senate represents a rural district. What does this say about the Republican appeal to rural voters in Oklahoma and nationwide?

Keith Gaddie: Well, Shawn, it’s a great question. Nationally, the Democrats long dominated rural voting and rural representation. And then starting about 30 years ago, the rural areas of the south and the rim south, including Oklahoma, started moving systematically towards the Republican Party and away from the Democrats.

The nature of the appeal is on several dimensions and in part its culture. Rural voters tend to be more traditionalist, but are often older as well. They do not have any sense of appeal from the Democratic Party. The National Democratic Party strategy, the National Democratic Party message, tends to run against traditionalism and tends to run against priorities rural voters hold. The bottom really dropped out about eight years ago in the 2010 election when there was a huge overturn of Democratic seats in rural areas. So this, in a way, is sort of the end of a long process that's been going on in the state for over a decade.

Dick Pryor: Keith, what is it about the Republican appeal, you say tradition, and about the Democratic appeal that is causing this to happen?

Keith Gaddie: Well, if you look at traditional values, which are largely informed by lay Protestantism, especially evangelical Protestantism, they run against a lot of the elements of diversity that are defining the National Democratic Party and also the state Democratic Party. If you look at the issue priorities that are often had in rural areas, rural voters don't want to pay taxes. They do want to have selective benefits for themselves. They don't want to have a lot of interference with their local community. They want to govern themselves and they want to set the moral, social and cultural tone for their community. This often runs counter to the egalitarianism of the Democratic Party.

Shawn Ashley: We all remember just a few years ago, a group of House members established a rural caucus to make sure rural interests were represented at the Capitol. With rural areas now solidly Republican, with a huge majority in the legislature - an 82 to 19 advantage for Republicans - are those rural areas seeing more influence?

Keith Gaddie: Well, I've been of the opinion they never really lost any influence. I think they were always in play. The Rural Caucus is more about drawing attention to rural areas than increasing their power. Everyone has a caucus at the State Capitol anymore. And so this was the logical end point was to have a rural caucus. But for rural areas, any power they enjoy in the short term is going to wither in the long term over time.

Over the next three decades, the balanced population in Oklahoma is going to move decidedly into the cities and the suburban counties. The next census will show that only about ten counties in the state actually gained most of the population that our state has gained since 2010, and that over 40 counties probably lost population, all rural, mainly in the west and in the southeast.

And this means the political power will move away from these counties in the long run because young people are leaving and they're not coming back. They're going to college or they're finding a job elsewhere. They're going where there's more opportunity and the older people do die. They do pass away. And what you're left with are shrinking communities with plenty of land and an established agrarian economy and a role in the energy economy, but not a lot of additional, more diversified economic opportunities for the people that don't actively farm or actively participate in our cyclical energy sector.

Dick Pryor: Keith in Oklahoma, Republicans can easily get about 65 percent of the vote, Democrats struggle to reach 35 percent. Is that about the way it's going to be for a while and how long will it take for that to change outside of urban areas?

Keith Gaddie: Well, we're a couple of presidential election cycles away from the Democrats coming back and being competitive. If we look at other states that we echo - Texas and Georgia - they're ahead of the curve on recovery and competitiveness for the Democratic Party. But they also have substantially larger and more active, not Anglo, white populations. So, as the electorate becomes more diverse and more urban, the Democrats will gain ground. But picking up ground in the rural areas, I don't know if it ever comes back.

Dick Pryor: And young people in this election looked at things very differently than their parents and their grandparents.

Keith Gaddie: Yeah, and this is a problem across the nation is that often a young voter might have rural grandparents but have parents who left the country and came to the city. And these young people are completely disconnected from what we would call the traditional Oklahoma experience. If they're living in a suburb or if they're living in the city, they simply don't have the same ties and the same structure of social values that their grandparents might have. They tend to be a bit more flexible and open minded on a variety of issues that were taken for granted to be out of bounds as recently as 15, 20 years ago in this state.

Shawn Ashley: Redistricting will be one of the top issues for the next Oklahoma legislature. You've already talked about population shifts and demographic changes. What do you see happening as the legislature redistricts the state?

Keith Gaddie: Shawn, that's a great question. Of course, the legislature is going to do its thing, okay? And historically, the Senate has drawn its map, the House has drawn its map. We have unified party control, so the governor should sign off on whatever the legislature comes up with. The chambers tend to defer to each other and then they tend to coordinate on the congressional map.

With Stephanie Bice winning Congressional District Five, you know, if I were guessing, I'd say the odds of a status quo map are good, but more likely, the question is you've got to shed population from District Five. It's been growing tremendously. The west Oklahoma district, District Three, Frank Lucas’s seat, needs population. And also, I imagine Congressional District Two is probably down a bit also, although I haven't looked at the numbers to be sure. So part of what you have to do is you have to reconcile how to shed population from Stephanie Bice’s seat while also ensuring her electoral competitiveness in a district that is evolving.

The Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County portions of CD-5 are far more Democratic than Pottawatomie, in some of the counties, for example. So, we could end up with a map that looks like 30 years ago where Oklahoma City finds itself split between two or three congressional districts inside Oklahoma County. We're going to have to find out. But power in the state legislature should creep towards the suburbs because you're going to probably have to find a way to shed a district in western Oklahoma and in southeastern Oklahoma in the House. And at least one Senate seat is probably going to have to significantly relocate itself.

The good news, though, Shawn, is that with term limits and with the staggered terms used in the state Senate, it's a lot easier to accommodate what we call it, collapsing districts than it used to be. You can do this without inconveniencing anybody's career.

Dick Pryor: That's going to be a big story in 2021. OU professor Dr. Keith Gaddie, thanks for joining us on Capitol Insider.

Keith Gaddie: A pleasure to be here, gentlemen. Take care.

Dick Pryor: If you have questions, e-mail us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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