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Oklahoma Democrats See Potential In Lawton, But Could Lose Stronghold Senate Seat

Caroline Halter / Oklahoma Public Media Exchange
Local Democratic organizer Terry Gresham talks with House District 62 candidate Larry Bush at the Comanche County Democratic Party office in Lawton on September 21, 2018

Mike Couke runs the Comanche County Democratic Party out of a one-room office nestled between a laundromat and a barbershop in Lawton. This year, he’s focused on training local Democrats to make better use of voter lists ahead of the general election.

“The best way to reach voters is to knock on doors. And that's one thing the list gives you is physical addresses,” Couke said.

Larry Bush, a Democrat running for Lawton’s House District 62, sits next to him. He’s running for a second time after losing in 2016.

“The prior person who held the seat did a good job of just knocking doors. He worked. He knocked on every door,” Bush explained. “And it's good for me because I saw that example. I think that's what I've got to do.”

This time, Bush says he’ll knock on every single door in his district. But he also believes the mood of the electorate has shifted to his advantage because of discontent with Republican-led budget cuts to education.

“It's really changed, the whole political landscape, particularly in my district where people are more engaged, more involved,” Bush said.

After losing control of state government in 2010, Oklahoma’s Democratic party is trying to rebuild. And Lawton is one place outside Oklahoma City and Tulsa where the party believes it can make gains in 2018.

“We were not prepared for the Republican takeover. And it's taken a while for us to get back on our feet,” said Anna Langthorn, who chairs the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

Langthorn is optimistic her party can flip Lawton’s two house districts in the upcoming election. And she’s sending down a field organizer for the first time in 10 years to help get out the vote.

“If you can elect a state senator you should be able to elect one or two State House members in the seats that overlap that district,” Langthorn said.

But Oklahoma Democrats’ biggest challenge here may be holding onto Lawton’s Senate District 32— a seat they’ve held since the 1930s — because John Michael Montgomery, the Republican who defeated Bush in 2016, is leaving his House seat to run for Senate.

Credit Caroline Halter / Oklahoma Public Media Exchange
Republican State Representative and candidate for Senate District 32 John Michael Montgomery at Cameron University on September 21, 2018.

Like the Democrats, Montgomery is busy knocking doors as November approaches.

“We've been out talking to people about the issues that are important,” Montgomery said. “At this moment I get this very strong sense that they are very concerned about where dollars go. And I think that's one of the biggest things for people.”

Montgomery has held office for four years, and he’s confident in his track record as one of Lawton’s state representatives. He voted in favor of raising taxes for a teacher pay raise in March and worked to get the Oklahoma Vision Fund on the November ballot, which sets aside 5 percent of the oil and gas tax revenue in a trust fund to be used during economic downturns.

But he, too, senses a change in attitude amongst voters.

“I will say that there does seem to be more of an anti-incumbent feeling right now,” Montgomery admitted.

And this feeling could give Montgomery’s opponent in the state senate race, Democrat Jacobi Crowley, the advantage.

Crowley, another second-time candidate, is a public school teacher who is running on the same message as he did in 2016: that the state needs to invest more in education and the solution is raising the gross production tax back to seven percent.

Credit Caroline Halter / Oklahoma Public Media Exchange
Democrat Jacobi Crowley goes door-to-door in Lawton on September 22, 2018, hoping to win Senate District 32.

Like fellow Democrat Larry Bush, Crowley thinks concerns about education and current leadership will help him increase Democratic turnout in November — and even convince some Republicans to vote for him.

“When I first ran, people were saying they wanted change, but they didn't know how to do it,” Crowley said. “And I think the people are noticing that it's time to start moving forward with some different blood and some new ideas, as well as some new leadership.”

As he walks door-to-door on an overcast Saturday afternoon, Crowley tells one registered Republican voter "it's time for something different."

“Something damn different,” the man exclaimed. “I’m tired of these politicians, same old crap…”

Crowley is convinced this time around will be different, as long as he puts in the work of connecting directly with voters. But, with so many larger forces at play, how Crowley and the other Democrats perform in Lawton, is likely beyond the control of a single candidate or party.

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