Emily Tuck walks through the backroom aisles at Carrol’s Shoe Corner in Elk City. She works here and at a record store next door in this city’s bustling downtown district of coffee shops, clothing boutiques and gift stores.
“Downtown kind of looked like a ghost downtown with the oil-field bust, and so just in the past few years it's really started thriving,” Tuck said.
Tuck likes working in Elk City. But there are a couple of things she would like to change. For instance, she would like more art in the downtown area.
“They're slowly implementing more events, little art shows, even if it's just high school students at the coffee shops,” Tuck said.
And the big thing should we want to change is improved access to mental health care.
“I have personally experienced struggles with it and personally experienced a lack of resources that are in this area,” Tuck said.
Polling commissioned by Oklahoma public radio stations for the Oklahoma Engaged project suggests people in southwestern counties see economy and education as the most important issues facing the state. But when people were asked where they would rather see the state spend money — education or healthcare — 60 percent said they would prefer to see it go to healthcare.
Landry Brewer, a political science and history instructor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University’s Sayre campus, said southwestern Oklahoma is deeply conservative.
“Democratic candidates have struggled mightily, and were this a normal election cycle, I would suggest that Democrats would continue to struggle mightily,” Brewer said.
According to Oklahoma Engaged polling, southwestern Oklahoma is the only part of the state that views the Republican party in a positive light. Likewise, the region anchored by the Oklahoma City metro is the only one in the state with a positive view of the Democratic party.
“Even though Republicans have been trending very well in far western Oklahoma, we're in an interesting time where within the state you have so much concern over the budget and its effect on education, the lack of qualified teachers and teacher pay, the walkout last spring,” Brewer said. “I think you're finding candidates, particularly Democratic candidates in far western Oklahoma, who are trying to tap into that constituency.”
Brewer says gun rights and social conservatism are popular in this corner of the state. And there are a lot of low-tax, Tea Party conservatives here, too.
State Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, represents House District 55, a rural, sprawling district comprised largely of western Oklahoma farm towns.
“It has a lot of small communities. Elk City is kind of the large community in the district,” Russ said.
Russ chairs the House Education Appropriations and Budget Committee, and he voted in favor of a teacher pay raise and tax increase during the 2018 legislative session. That could put Russ in an uncomfortable position in a part of the state where 53 percent of residents say their taxes are already too high.
“I think as a conservative Republican having to do what we've had to go through in the last two years, I call it excruciating,” Russ said. “It's been extremely painful because we've had to move over and leave some of our base on the people that poke you in the chest with their finger and say, ‘No new taxes and I mean it.’”
Now that the teacher pay raise is settled, Russ says he wants to focus on other education issues that aren’t as related to funding — like improving math and reading performance.
Russ says the teacher walkout energized Democrats in Oklahoma. And despite voting for the tax increase, he believes he has the support of Republicans.
“I think my base is very solid and very engaged and still very strong in Oklahoma, especially in western Oklahoma,” he said.
Incumbency or the wave
While support for tax increases could cost Russ with the most committed corners of his Republican base, the same issue could please the most energetic corner of his Democratic opponent's.
Dennis Dugger is a business owner whose mother was a teacher, and his father was a district attorney. He says he would have supported the teacher pay raise and accompanying tax increase.
“Absolutely I would have voted for it because it was critical. It was needed,” Dugger said.
At a recent community picnic in Sayre, Dugger described himself as a conservative Democrat who doesn’t line up with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.
“My only political claim to fame is being on the Roger Mills County Fair Board,” he said. “We had 100 people vote, and I think I won by three votes,” Dugger said.
Dugger said he is worried about the long-term effects of low teacher pay and poor school funding as fewer young Oklahomans seek careers as teachers.
“I can't fathom getting a degree and going into an industry where I know I'm not going to get a pay raise for at least 10 years,” Dugger said.
Landry Brewer, the university instructor, said Donald Trump’s unusual presidency combined with the unpopularity of Gov. Mary Fallin and bipartisan concern about education funding levels have thrown the 2018 election for a loop.
“I think maybe more than any recent election cycle, the outcome really is up in the air,” he said. “If a Democrat is going to succeed, this is probably the year to do that.”
Brewer said there is more voter discontent than he’s ever seen in the conservative southwestern corner of Oklahoma, but it’s hard to predict what will prevail in November: The power of incumbency, or a wave of change.