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Republican dominance continues in Oklahoma elections


Oklahoma's 2022 general election saw another victorious night for Republican candidates from the state legislature to Congress.


Capitol Insider sponsored by the Oklahoma State Medical Association. Physicians dedicated to providing and increasing access to health care for all Oklahomans. More on the vision and mission of OSMA @okmed.org.

Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - taking you inside politics, policy, government and elections in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. Our guest is Dr. Allyson Shortle, associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. She is coauthor of the book, The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics. Dr. Shortle, thanks again for joining us.

Allyson Shortle: Thanks for having me.

Shawn Ashley: This year's election cycle further solidified the Republican Party's hold over Oklahoma. Republicans won all statewide offices, held all seats in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and expanded their huge majority in the Oklahoma Senate and lost only one seat in the Oklahoma House. Bottom line, Republicans again did very, very well. You did exit polling on election night. What did you learn from Oklahoma voters last Tuesday?

Allyson Shortle: Well, polling in Oklahoma City was really informative. My students were out serving as the official enumerators of the Oklahoma City exit poll in eight separate precincts. And we got to listen to a lot of voters as they were coming out of the polls. And the issues that they kept saying time and again that they cared about were classic issues that had nothing to do with partisanship. They were municipal issues. As such, the biggest issue that we kept hearing about was homelessness. And this was from voters who are both Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, independent. It really didn't matter. They do not think that officials are doing enough about these types of issues, and they would like to see more of an effort both on the local government, as well as the state government, to provide resources to solve these types of issues of homelessness and affordable housing.

I also heard a lot of voters talk about education as well as health care. And of course, every once in a while, we would hear about the economy, a classic issue to Oklahoma voters, as well as American voters everywhere. That being said, I heard a lot of enthusiasm from the voters. My students were just so excited to see how excited Oklahoma voters were at being heard in this election.

Dick Pryor: That's interesting. The total number of votes cast was lower than four years ago. 50.3% of voters turned out this year compared to 56.15% in 2018. Do you see any reason for that?

Allyson Shortle: Well, I think we should ease up a little bit on our expectations of turnout, especially in the post-pandemic era, especially in a state where we would expect Republicans to predominate. This isn't classic. 2018 was a record high turnout, so we shouldn't use that as what it should be. And I, of course, as a political scientist, I want everybody to come out and vote. That would be wonderful for democracy, for everybody to be heard. But the fact of the matter is, 50% is still a good turnout compared to the historical turnout levels in midterm elections, especially in the state of Oklahoma.

Shawn Ashley: Governor Stitt's 13.67 percentage point margin of victory over Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister was 1.5 percentage points higher than his 12.1 percentage point victory over former Attorney General Drew Edmondson in 2018. Did anything you heard in the exit polling help to explain that difference?

Allyson Shortle: Yes. In fact, I will challenge everybody to look at those margins of victory for our Republicans, especially looking at the same voter base that they are vying for. So, if you look at Lankford, right? If you look at even the lieutenant governor Pinnell, who is going up for reelection, you look at Mullen, these are Republicans who all won with 30 plus point margins. Stitt differs, right? We are only seeing half of that, not even. So, what explains that? I will just tell you to take this with a grain of salt, because these are the digital responses. We still have half of the data to input here. But what I am seeing in the data that we collected on Election Day from the online sources is that people tended to care quite a deal about the Five Tribes’ endorsement of Joy Hofmeister.

And in particular, if you look at the Lankford voters, you would expect Republican voters to both vote for Lankford, for instance, and also vote for Governor Stitt. That wasn't a 1 to 1. In fact, Lankford voters tended to split their vote for Joy and Kevin Stitt. Once we unpack those voters who were Lankford voters who did not vote for Stitt, we start seeing that the issue that really differed for those voters was the Five Tribes endorsement. They, interestingly enough, weren't necessarily citizens of tribes who are having these attitudes, but Oklahomans overall and Republicans of all races sort of combined had this view of if they did pay attention to that endorsement, if it mattered to them, then they were less likely to vote for Kevin Stitt. And it's true, it's a majority victory, but compared to these other races, it is not quite the resounding victory that we'd expect, given how well these other candidates have done.

Dick Pryor: As far as Joy Hofmeister, she was reelected state superintendent in 2018 with 687,000 votes. This time running for governor as a Democrat. With those endorsements and that support, as you mentioned, Hofmeister received 481,000 votes. That's a drop of 206,000 votes from four years ago. Is that mostly just because she had a D rather than an R after her name or something else?

Allyson Shortle: The short answer is yes. We are a very Republican state, and not only are there dynamics of there's a Democrat involved, but we have to think through the dynamics of a Republican who then sheds that label and then adopts a Democratic label. Some in-group members, some Republicans, might think that that's sort of, you know, a traitor, right? This is someone who is part of their team or was part of their team and has chosen to go over to the other side. So, we're not entirely sure that this is what's happening, but we do know that it's very uncommon for Republicans to vote for Democrats and Democrats to vote for Republicans. Now, Joy was able to get some Republican support, but it was minor compared to obviously the support that Republicans were willing to give to other Republicans who were Republican in label as well.

Shawn Ashley: In 2006, Democrat Brad Henry was reelected governor with 66.5% of the vote. Since then, the Democratic nominee for governor has received 39.55%, 42.23%, 41%. And this year, as we've been talking about, Superintendent Hofmeister received 41.78% of the vote. It looks like the 41 to 42% is the cap on what a Democrat can expect while Oklahoma Republicans have averaged in the 50% range, what happened to so dramatically flip the script?

Allyson Shortle: I will again start with a short answer. I think Jim Inhofe is a masterful strategist who essentially orchestrated the Republican takeover of the state. I think also what is important to note is that, you know, it's not one person, but one person can make a difference. And that was, in my opinion, Jim Inhofe’s, like, massive effort to make sure that the right people were running, that he was recruiting people into the offices, and that he was also making sure that the Democrats who were retiring were going to go in these new open races, were going to face stiff challengers from the Republicans that he recruited into those spots. So, I think largely it's been a massive, coordinated effort on the part of the state Republican Party.

Also, we have to just look at where we are in terms of the public opinion and what values Oklahomans share, right? A lot of those values are religious values, their moral traditionalist values. And as such, with the polarization, nationally speaking, we have seen the turn of religious conservatives into the Republican Party solidifying in that base, whereas you're seeing much more seculars and maybe non-Christians or non-Protestants into the Democratic base. So, some of it's also following along the lines of this cultural distinction between Republicans and Democrats. And the polarization trends that we're seeing nationally are also happening in Oklahoma to a degree which has made the state even redder, essentially.

Dick Pryor: Along those lines. Oklahoma is a prime example of the national electorate. Democrats do well in urban and some suburban areas, and Republicans dominate rural areas. It's like rural and urban voters live in two different worlds. In broad strokes, what is behind that?

Allyson Shortle: Well, there's a lot of things at play when we talk about urban versus rural. It's certainly the case that most urban voters, people who living in Oklahoma, Tulsa and Cleveland counties, they tend to care more about things like health care, education, social issues. Rural voters also care about those issues, but they put their traditional values ahead of those types of issues. And so, it's not necessarily that Oklahomans have different things they care about. Most Oklahomans care about all of these things. And in fact, plenty of Oklahomans in urban centers have the same types of religious, traditionalist values. They just tend to apply different values to their vote choice. And partly that's just because of not only the social environment, the fact that many people in cities require different services that maybe aren't available in rural Oklahoma, but a litany of reasons.

Now, I do want to caution against making too much of this distinction, though, because on any given issue, we've seen rural voters and urban voters, they look sort of similar in terms of where that split is. So, we often want to make this distinction that, “oh, rural voters were the ones who were responsible for this.” That's not very that's not entirely true. When we look at how Joy Hofmeister did in this election, for instance, she could have done better in these urban centers. Right. She did not, right? Why is that? Well, there are some of those same values at play in those urban centers. By that same token, there are plenty of rural voters that share these more liberal values, more progressive values as well. So, I just want caution against making this into rural versus urban, because while that is true in this election, rural voters really showed up for those Republican candidates. There are plenty people in the urban centers that showed up for those Republican candidates, too, and vice versa.

Shawn Ashley: As you look at the early information you received from the exit polling. Do you see any lessons that pollsters and for that matter, the news media, would do well to take away from this year's elections?

Allyson Shortle: I sure do, Shawn. I think going back to this idea of why do we get the polls wrong sometimes, why are these predictions off? In the lead up to the election Oklahoma received national attention because the race between Joy Hofmeister and Kevin Stitt looked incredibly close…to some. And then other polls thought it looked very far apart with Kevin Stitt having a wide lead. We didn't know what to make of that. Neither did the national news media. Thus, Oklahoma became a point of serious attention.

What ended up happening, of course, is that Kevin Stitt won this election pretty safely, and the reason for this huge difference in the polling has to do with who takes surveys and also how we as pollsters communicate with the communities around us, right? A big problem with our polling infrastructure right now is that we need to meet rural voters where they are. I don't think many rural voters are responding to these surveys that are contracted out to national polls, because what we really want to have are polls that are not exploitative, polls where we're using them to help the communities around us, and then once we can prove to the Oklahoma citizens that we are here for them, then we can start asking those questions and doing so on their own terms, right in their own communities. We are visiting them and we're not just using them and their opinions to make some sort of point for ourselves.

I do have a lot of respect for the rural voters in Oklahoma. I think they deserve to have their attitude shared. They deserve to be heard. And when we are able to get those voices and really enter into those communities in a respectful way so we can have these honest opinions and have more honest dialogue among all voters. Until we do that, we aren't going to see truly great polling. We do our best job in Oklahoma that we possibly can. But I do think it takes living in our urban cores, going to rural Oklahoma and having real conversations with real Oklahomans.

Dick Pryor: Something to think about as we head toward 2024. Dr. Allyson Shortle, associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. Thanks for joining us.

Allyson Shortle: Thanks for having me.

Dick Pryor: Dr. Shortle is coauthor of the new book, The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics. And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail them to news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @QuorumCallShawn. 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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