Despite a Democrat victory for Kendra Horn in Oklahoma Tuesday, the state’s delegation will have to rely on bipartisan solutions and potential compromise to maintain influence in a newly Democratic House of Representatives.
The Nov. 6 midterm elections saw Democrats secure a solid majority of seats in the House after a contentious and unpredictable campaign season. Horn, who narrowly beat incumbent Steve Russell for Oklahoma’s 5th District, has been called “the biggest upset of the night” by polling site FiveThirtyEight.
For the past two years, Oklahoma and 14 other states, including Utah, Nebraska and Arkansas, have operated in a Republican-majority house with entirely Republican delegations. Now, while Horn may help bridge some of the partisan divide, some members of the delegation may struggle for influence and agenda setting in the next congressional session.
“We've seen in the House for quite a while is that if you're in the minority, it's pretty lonely,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. “You're not going to have much ability to affect the agenda — you're going to have no ability to affect the agenda. You're not likely to have many votes that you can win.”
It’s not unusual for the minority party to take back Congress in a midterm election, but now the amount Republicans can accomplish is up to the majority party in many ways, said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.
“Democrats run the show, and if they want to put Republicans in the backseat, they can, depending on the size of their majority,” Bonjean said. “If it’s a large majority, they definitely could ice out Oklahoma congressmen from their priorities.”
The state’s fate could largely depend on the seniority and bipartisan reach of its two most experienced delegates: Frank Lucas and Tom Cole.
Should Republicans have maintained control in the House, Lucas, a 24-year representative of Oklahoma’s 3rd District, was poised to chair the House Committee on Financial Services or the House Committee on Science and Technology. Cole, District 4’s representative of 16 years, had been eyeing the powerful House Appropriations Committee chairmanship in the next Congress.
Even without those chair positions, leaders like Lucas, who deals with bipartisan agricultural issues, and Cole, who has respect from both sides of the aisle, will still be able to exert some influence in a Democratic House, said Keith Gaddie, a President's Associates presidential professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“Frank (Lucas) is coming out of a long tour as chairman of (the House Committee on Agriculture), and Ag is historically the least partisan committee in the House. So he's still going to be very effective on agricultural issues for the state, even working as ranking member rather than as chair,” Gaddie said.
“And for Congressman Cole, he's always had strong bipartisan ties — he's always been seen by Democrats and by the national media as being a sane and sensible Republican voice … so Tom is going to be in a tremendous position to help shape bipartisan legislation in particular,” Gaddie said.
In a written statement to Gaylord News, Cole acknowledged the difficult midterm season and divided Congress, but spoke of hope for bipartisan solutions.
“Going into the midterms, we knew it was going to be a challenge for the House,” Cole said in the statement. “While it’s disappointing to lose the Republican majority in the House, there is still a lot that can be accomplished in divided government. In the days ahead, I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Oklahoma delegation and on both sides of the aisle to further advance meaningful legislation for American people.”
The future in the House minority is not yet clear for District 1’s new representative Kevin Hern or District 2’s incumbent Markwayne Mullin.
Horn, however, could have some potential to effect change even as a junior member of Congress, said Richard Johnson, a political science professor at Oklahoma City University. As a relatively moderate Democrat, Horn may be able to work well with Cole and Lucas while succeeding within a Democratic House, Johnson said.
“I think that, potentially, she can do fine in terms of bridging the gap between the Democratic Party and sort of appealing to her Oklahoma colleagues and constituents,” Johnson said. “Just the fact that the Democrats are in the majority helps. If it was still a Republican majority ... I wouldn't think that her ability to affect things would be very much.”
Horn’s successes will partially depend on her House committee and subcommittee assignments, which ideally might relate to education or transportation, Johnson said.
Oklahoma representatives will also have to rely on their relationships in the Senate, Bonjean said, referring to Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe and James Lankford.
“The Republican senators who represent Oklahoma are going to be that much more important into making sure that the priorities of the state are well represented,” Bonjean said. “It’ll be more difficult for Republicans representing those districts in Oklahoma, because they’re going to be in the minority, and they’re going to have to coordinate really closely with their Senate counterparts in order to make sure that the priorities for their district and state get achieved.”
Gaylord News is a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.