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Why most state legislative races in Oklahoma are uncontested

Lawton resident and former OU football player Larry Bush ran as a Democrat for House of Representatives in 2016, 2018 and 2020 losing all three times to a Republican opponent.
Whitney Bryen
Oklahoma Watch
Lawton resident and former OU football player Larry Bush ran as a Democrat for House of Representatives in 2016, 2018 and 2020 losing all three times to a Republican opponent.

Nearly 70% of Oklahoma’s state legislative elections will be decided without a single vote cast in November.

Those uncontested, no-voters-required races span the state — from Bartlesville to Edmond to west Lawton, where a former Oklahoma Sooners football player named Larry Bush lost the closest state House race in 2018.

That November, nearly 75% of House and Senate races statewide included candidates from at least two parties.

Four years later, 182 Republicans filed to run for legislative seats and only 58 Democrats. After three unsuccessful campaigns, Bush was not among them.

“Campaigning takes a toll on your livelihood and your family, every aspect of your life,” Bush said last month from his Lawton insurance office, surrounded by family photos and an OU helmet he wore as a defensive back for the Gary Gibbs and Howard Schnellenberger Sooners of the 1990s.

“You’re putting everything out there and a lot of people can’t do that.”

When Bush started his first campaign in 2016, House District 62 showed signs of transitioning from red to purple. Half of its populationidentifies as Black, Hispanic or mixed race. Democrat Joe Dorman’s 2014 gubernatorial bid came up nine votes shy there.

Bush lost but ran again two years later, this time facing a 23-year-old city employee and former OU student government association president named Daniel Pae. In public forums, Bush vowed to support teacher pay raises and criminal justice reform efforts. Pae took similar stances while proposing legislation to support veterans and small businesses.

Bolstered bydonations from Republican leadership, including a $2,000 contribution from House Speaker Charles McCall, Pae approached election day with the fundraising edge. Bush relied mostly on personal contributions of less than $500.

Pae won by 42 votes.

This year, House District 62 was decided when nobody filed to run against Pae.

Oklahoma voters will decide only 31 of 101 House races and seven of 24 Senate on Nov. 8, a far cry from those 2018 midterms, when the statewide teacher walkout inspired more than 100 active and retired teachers, support staff and school board members to file for state legislative seats.

Though many of those contests were Republican landslides, a handful of GOP-leaning districts were won by margins of 6% or less, including:

  • in Muskogee, where Republican Chris Sneed defeated Jack Reavis with 53% of votes in House District 14; 
  • in Sequoyah County, where Republican Jim Olsen defeated Tom Stites with 52.8% of votes in House District 2; 
  • and in western Oklahoma, where Republican Todd Russ defeated Dennis Dugger with 52.7% of votes in House District 55. 

This year, none of those districts have a Democratic candidate.

Uncontested races spiked in 2020, when few Democrats beyond the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metros ran. Party leaders blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and predicted a 2022 rebound.

The opposite happened. Oklahoma now ranks among the nation's least competitive states for legislative races.

Ballotpedia, a nonprofit digital encyclopedia that compiles election information, provided Oklahoma Watch with data from 39 of 44 states that have legislative races on the ballot this year. Only Alabama has a higher percentage of seats without major party competition.

Without competitive local races, voters are more likely to become disengaged or feel alienated, studies have found. The same can happen to lawmakers who aren't making their case to voters. A 2011 Georgetown University study found state legislators who run unopposed are less effective and engaged with constituents.

Larry Bush said he fears some members of his community, many already skeptical that their vote matters, will continue to lose faith in the democratic process if the seat remains uncompetitive.

"Once people get used to not voting, it becomes a habit that affects not only this election but the next election cycle," he said. "Having more candidates out there certainly helps the cause and helps our party, so it's discouraging."

Pae, who serves in the House government modernization and technology committees, did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Seeds of GOP Dominance

Oklahoma Watch interviewed political experts, local organizers and current and former legislative candidates to gauge why uncompetitive races are rising. Expanding Republican influence and success in attracting voters and candidates were the most commonly cited contributors.

A Republican will occupy 74 of the 87 state legislative seats already decided. Nearly 40% of them faced a challenger who in most cases campaigned on right-wing social issues and loyalty to Donald Trump, the former president who twice won all 77 Oklahoma counties.

Only one Democratic legislative seat was settled during the June primary.

As the GOP built a supermajority in both chambers, it has exercised great influence on state government processes, including the once-per-decade redrawing of congressional and state legislative boundaries.

Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairwoman Alicia Andrews said Republican lawmakers used last fall's redistricting special session to protect incumbents and thwart competitive races. A.J. Ferate, the state GOP chairman, did not respond to interview requests for this story.

While Republican leaders stressed they did not consider party affiliation or race, some political observers and Democrats accused redistricting officials of partisan gerrymandering, particularly in redrawing the state's five congressional maps. State House and Senate boundaries redistricting received far less attention.

Lawmakers drew a predominately Black, Democratic-leaning neighborhood just north of the Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport from Pae’s House District 62 into District 64, which encompasses part of east Lawton and rural eastern Comanche County. In replacement, they added a block of high-income, Republican-leaning housing developments in the city's northwest corner.

"I could talk someone into running for a seat, but the way they've drawn the seats makes it nearly impossible for a Democrat to even have the remotest of chances," Andrews said, noting that a handful of Democratic incumbents in Oklahoma City and Tulsa did not draw Republican challengers.

Only a handful of voters cast their ballots at a Lawton polling station inside of a Life Church in House District 62 during the lunch hour on Aug. 23, 2022. Poll workers said run-off elections like this one are typically slow. They had seen only a few voters that morning and weren't expecting a busy afternoon.
Whitney Bryen
Oklahoma Watch
Only a handful of voters cast their ballots at a Lawton polling station inside of a Life Church in House District 62 during the lunch hour on Aug. 23, 2022. Poll workers said run-off elections like this one are typically slow. They had seen only a few voters that morning and weren't expecting a busy afternoon.

Data from Dave's Redistricting App shows Republicans gained a slight advantage from the updated maps. The GOP has also benefited from increases in voter registration, adding nearly 120,000 voters from November 2018 to January 2022 while the Democratic party lost about 85,000.

Those GOP voters are increasingly deciding who ends up at the Capitol in the primary, where there were 17 more Republican legislative races than will be on general election ballots in November.

Michael Crespin, director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, said the new maps have likely boosted some incumbents and discouraged challengers from running.

The state might also be reverting to a period of reduced voter turnout and political interest, Crespin said. Fewer than 50 state legislative races were contested in 2012 and 2014.

Just 40.7% of registered voterscast ballots in the 2014 midterm election, the lowest recorded rate since 1962.

"My guess is 2018 was a real high point for people running for office, and now a lot of that enthusiasm has waned we're going back to normal," Crespin said.

The Commitment of Running

For a $500 fee, any registered voter over 21 can file to run in their House district. The minimum age is 25 for the state Senate. Being competitive in November, candidates say, requires considerably more money, time and effort.

Jennifer Esau, a special education teacher from Claremore, ran unsuccessfully for Senate District 2 as a Democrat in 2018. She's running again, vowing to push for increased public education funding and better healthcare access.

Teachers haven't lost their sense of political engagement, Esau said, but many have been worn down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's a big commitment to run for office, working all day just like anyone and then coming home and making the fundraising calls or knocking doors," she said.

Crespin said self-employed lawyers and those with more flexible careers are more likely to consider a run for state office and find time to campaign. An Oklahoma Watch review found more than two-thirds of sitting state senators are attorneys, business owners, ranchers or retired.

"It's a hard job being a state representative," Crespin said. "It doesn't pay that great, and it's also weird because it's a full-time job that's technically part-time, so a lot of people can't do it."

Bush said the pressures of campaigning weighed heavily on his business and family life. He said candidates without job flexibility or savings would likely have an even more difficult time running a campaign.

"Democrats, we just don't have a lot of money, and we don't raise a lot of money," he said.

Vulnerable to Negative Ads

Locked in a tight race for the eastern Oklahoma House seat vacated by John Bennett, Democrat Tom Stites made an unusual request of his Republican opponent Jim Olsen.

"In the spirit of fun and sportsmanship, I invite you to grab your gun and meet me somewhere to shoot targets," Stites, who describes himself as pro-gun and anti-abortion, said in an August 2018 video posted to his campaign Facebook page. "We can find who is the most skilled and experienced with these awesome firearms."

Olsen declined thehighly-publicized challenge and Stites' opposition funded ads connecting him to high-profile Democrats unpopular in eastern Oklahoma.

On Sept. 17, 2018, Olsen's campaign spent $660 on a billboard advertisement, campaign finance records show. On Oct. 16, one day after a dark money group donated $2,500, Olsen spent $8,000 on mail advertisements.

"They put me and Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi on a big billboard in one of the main areas of the county, even though I never supported them," he said. "It's just such a caustic environment. I don't want to say it's embittered me, but in some ways but it has."

Olsen, who won with 53% of votes, since has gone unopposed through two election cycles. The 62-year Roland legislator recently sponsoredtwo so-called election security bills and a measure to retroactively legalize conversion therapy on LGBTQ individuals.

Through the late-2010s, moderate-to-conservative Democrats from places like Idabel and McAlester ran successful state House campaigns. As the Republican Party made voter registration gains in rural areas, the state's Democratic caucus concentrated in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Norman and Stillwater.

"It's a tough thing to do in eastern Oklahoma right now, running as a Democrat," Stites said. "It's much easier to jump on the Republican bandwagon."

Carter Johnson, outreach director for the United Rural Democrats of Oklahoma, said a lack of funding and external support makes it difficult for rural Democrats to differentiate themselves from the national party. Candidates who don't have prior political experience or high name recognition are particularly vulnerable, he said.

"When you're in a rural area with state House campaigns running off of $20,000 maximum, you aren't able to fend off those mailers or television ads," Johnson said.

A More Competitive Future?

Johnson said rural Democrats can regain momentum by targeting areas that supported ballot initiatives to implement criminal justice reform, legalize medical marijuana and expand healthcare access.

Though urban voters were most likely to support State Question 802 in 2020, voters in rural Caddo, Pontotoc and Cherokee counties supported the Medicaid expansion question.

"We need to find the people that voted for Medicaid expansion and voted for Trump," Johnson said. "Those are people we can talk to and say we want to lower your prescription drug costs and fix your roads. If they're with us on the issues, but they're not with us at the end of the day because we're not reaching them, that's the problem we need to fix."

Andrews said expansion is possible in some rural and suburban areas.

"Voters in Oklahoma largely vote down party lines, but if we can break it down and explain to people what they're actually voting for, we can change the electorate here," she said.

Bush, the insurance agent and former OU football player, said the party needs to focus on local organizing and outreach to attract new candidates.

"We've got to have a grassroots effort, similar to the one Stacey Abrams in Georgia and those areas have had if we're going to have any chance of getting any momentum back here," Bush said. "A lot of it has to do with the younger generation and getting them involved."

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch.
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