Crowded Oklahoma legislative races produce few upsets
Despite a grueling legislative session and a record number of primary challengers, the majority of Oklahoma House and Senate members seeking re-election were largely successful in Tuesday's primary elections.
Three incumbents fell — Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Duncan, Rep. Ken Walker, R-Tulsa, and Sen. Corey Brooks, R-Washington.
State Senator District 43
State Representative District 50
State Representative District 70
Twenty-five other incumbents won their primary races.
But considering 29 of the last 30 challenged incumbents during the last two elections cycles won their primary elections, Tuesday's results represented a bit of a turning tide, even if a small one.
After a year of budget failures, agency cuts and political squabbles, twice the number of legislators as last cycle drew challengers, many of whom said their candidacy sought to bring widespread change to the
“I think maybe the public is waking up to some of the important issues,” said Andy Moore, the organizer behind the grassroots organization Let's Fix This, which has been advocating for state funding reform. “But I think we all struggle with cynicism thinking it's too big to fix, and it can be hard to get out (the vote) in a primary race.”
Other challengers made it interesting, including in House District 18 where incumbent Rep. Donnie Condit squeaked past Cord McCoy by 1 percent in the Republican primary. Incumbent Rep. Charles Ortega also edged his Republican challenger, John Thomas, by less than 2 percent in District 52.
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A record number of candidates filed for office this year, many hoping to ride a wave of voter frustration.
Paul Zimmerman, a barista at Clarity Coffee in downtown Oklahoma City, said his job at a coffee shop gives him a front-row seat to conversations concerning politics and the frustration Oklahomans have.
“I feel like people are super engaged because I work in a coffee shop, and this is where people bring their ideas,” said
Zimmerman, who added education is a popular subject among political conversations.
But the frustration of citizens does not always translate into votes as Oklahoma has been near the bottom in voter turnout for years, including fifth-worst in the 2014 election cycle, according to the nonprofit FairVote.
“I don't see people getting as active politically, especially at my age,” said Austin Sheehy, 21, who was wearing an “I Voted” sticker as he walked into the coffee shop.
Sheehy may be more engaged in politics than other young adults as he is a political science major at the University of Central Oklahoma and interns at a political polling firm.
He agreed that citizen frustration was on the rise but did not know how that would impact state election results.
“I think if there is any year to beat an incumbent, it's this year,” Sheehy said. “If you look at the huge budget shortfall, which isn't necessarily a legislator's fault, but maybe some things they did contributed, (new candidates) can capitalize off of that.”
A handful of candidates seemed to capitalize on the political climate in their primaries and many more will hope to do so in the Nov. 8 general election.
Focus on education
Education was a major theme in many legislative races as nearly 30 candidates had ties to public schools, including at least 18 who were current or former public school teachers.
Many of these candidates adopted the title “teachers caucus” and drew support from Oklahomans for Public Education, a large social media community that launched as a political action committee earlier this year.
Alex Weintz, the former communications director for Gov. Mary Fallin, said he believed education was an important issue for voters but did not think it always translated to a desire for higher teacher pay or funding, which many challengers were running on.
“It is probably true that education is the No. 1 issue for the general electorate, but it's probably not true that it's the No. 1 issue for Republican primary voters,” said Weintz, who now leads the communications division at Oklahoma City-based FKG Consulting.
“When Republicans care about education, a lot of times they are caring about different things than the rest of the electorate, and that can include federal overreach in the classroom and the type of content taught in the classroom,” Weintz added. “When Fallin was running, it was opposition to Common Core, but we weren't hearing a lot of people saying they wanted teacher pay raises and that's driving our vote.”
Sen. Kyle Loveless beat Mustang teacher Mike Mason by 15 points and won reelection because of no Democratic candidate in waiting.
“I have the same goals as many of those who consider themselves pro education, the difference is in how we want to get there is different,” said Loveless, who backs school choice and school district consolidation.
Tuesday's primary results mean the general election officially has begun in many districts with the Republican and Democratic candidate selected. A handful of ballots also will feature independent and Libertarian candidates.
Some voters said they expected the Nov. 8 general election, which includes a presidential contest, to draw more attention and closer scrutiny.
“I voted for Kelly, I can't pronounce her last name, and then I can't remember the first person I voted for,” said Doug Vanliew, who had just walked out of a precinct in northwest Oklahoma City. “I haven't been studying them that well. But when we get down to the nitty-gritty in November, then I will do some more serious research.”