By Hastings Wyman –
Oklahoma is overwhelmingly a Red State. Both of its United States Senators and all five of its US Representatives are Republicans. All statewide offices are held by Republicans, as are 40 of the 48 state senators and 72 of 101 state house members. Romney carried Oklahoma with 67% of the vote and won all of the state’s 77 counties.
As a result of this overwhelming presence, says Keith Gaddie, political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, the state Republican Party “is too big and is breaking into various factions.” Gaddie cites Oklahoma-born humorist Will Rogers’s comment, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat,” as applicable to Sooner State Republicans today.
The state Senate is dominated by the economically conservative majority, says Gaddie, while the state House, with more social conservatives represented, “is more fragmented, but the chamber-of-commerce types end up driving the bus.”
Gaddie asserts that as the GOP has gained the lion’s share of political power in most Southern states, state Republican Party organizations “are not that important… Incumbents can raise money without them.” He adds that the party organization “matters to the minority party,” which uses the party’s organizational muscle to help its candidates obtain power.
Nevertheless, the state party organization is a factor in Oklahoma’s political football. In April of this year, former state Sen. Randy Brogdon, a hardcore conservative, was elected chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, after winning a slim 4.8% of the vote in the Republican US Senate primary in 2012. He promptly began to ruffle feathers.
First, he sent out a fundraising letter contending the party was broke, which was disputed by Dave Weston, his predecessor in the job. Then, after Brogdon picked T. C. Ryan as political director, it was disclosed that Ryan had previously pled guilty to domestic violence charges. But Brogdon delayed taking any action against Ryan, who resigned after Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and other Republican officials demanded that he be removed. Brogdon “was headed for dismissal” until Ryan resigned, says Gaddie
The final disruption came when the party posted on its Facebook page a picture of a sign at the zoo, “Please Do Not Feed the Animals … The animals will grow dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves.” The posting was interpreted by some as comparing poor people to animals, and Brogdon apologized for it.
Chad Alexander, a political consultant who is a former chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, says, “It’s the toughest job in the Republican Party, different interests, different factions. People are either for you or against you from day one.” As for Brogdon’s troubles as chairman, “A lot of that was internal party squabbles,” says
Alexander. As for the poor people/animals posting, “Brogdon apologized. It was not his intent” to make that comparison. “The Democrats were trying to make something of it.”
Meanwhile, Brogdon’s no-holds-barred conservatism has continued. In July, he wrote that the Oklahoma legislature should make all abortions illegal, defying the US Supreme Court: “The federal courts don’t have the authority to make us kill babies.”
Controversial or not, Brogdon will continue to be a factor in the state GOP. His former state senate seat will become vacant when the resignation of incumbent state Sen. Rick Brinkley (R) takes effect on Dec. 31, leaving three years in the term. Brinkley resigned in the wake of embezzlement accusations by a former employer. There is speculation that Brogdon will run for his old seat. He would have “a lot of credibility as a candidate,” says Alexander. And he notes that because Brogdon has represented those voters before, “People who feel that they know him won’t be influenced” by his recent bad publicity.
Sarah Baker, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Democratic Party, says that of Brogdon’s goofs, the people/animals comparison “was really the biggest thing.” In response, the party launched “a statewide food drive with the county parties. Quite a few of them have been collecting food,” which has been distributed to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, a charitable organization, and to similar groups.
Baker says Democrats are actively seeking a candidate to run for Brogdon’s old state senate seat. “We don’t want to leave any seat unchallenged.” However, the election in this strongly Republican district will likely be decided in a crowded GOP primary.
The Democrats day in the sun may be further down the road. Gaddie says they are beginning to recruit “white rural and suburban young people as candidates. Maybe in eight years they will be a factor.” For now, however, “There’s plenty of money for Democrats in the state. Hillary will come here and raise significant money.”
In any case, for the time being, every day is a Red Letter day for the Oklahoma GOP. Stay tuned.