By Hastings Wyman –
Oklahoma is just about the Reddest state in the Union. The Sooner State hasn’t given its electoral votes to a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson was elected in 1964. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost every one of the state’s 77 counties to Donald Trump.
But that’s not the whole story. Since Trump won the presidency in 2016, Democrats have won at least four special elections for legislative seats vacated by Republicans. Term-limited Republican Gov. Mary Fallin is leaving office with low approval ratings, due to budget cuts that hurt schools. Moreover, with just 15 days till Election Day, the GOP nominee Kevin Stitt, a very successful and wealthy businessman, has still not managed to top 50% in a single voter survey, and Democratic nominee Drew Edmondson, four times elected Oklahoma’s attorney general, remains in striking distance.
Still, despite some pessimistic signs, the GOP has some strong factors in its favor. Stitt is a political outsider in a year when insiders haven’t fared well at the polls. “He is one Republican who could run against Mary Fallin and Edmondson,” says Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma. Fallin endorsed Stitt, but his campaign down-played her endorsement. Moreover, “There’s no anti-Trump pull” hurting Republicans.” Indeed, Vice President Mike Pence headlined a rally in Tulsa last Thursday. He praised the Trump Administration as “a foreshadowing of what you’re going to see here in Oklahoma” under a Stitt governorship. The audience of some 3,500 “roared its approval of just about everything Trump,” reported the Tulsa World.
Moreover, Republicans aren’t pessimistic. “In Oklahoma, you would always want to be running as a Republican,” says Chad Alexander, a former Republican State chairman. Polls cited on Real Clear Politics showed Edmondson ahead early on. However, the Sooner Poll, taken in early September, showed Stitt with a 3-point margin. And in a late September survey, taken by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates, Stitt had 46% to Edmondson’ 40%. Alexander points out that, in contrast to Stitt, Edmondson benefitted from not having a runoff; hence his early lead in surveys.
Meanwhile, Stitt’s GOP runoff opponent, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, has endorsed the Republican nominee. “Republicans are coming home,” says Alexander.
Doubts that Oklahoma will stick with its Republican history persist, however. “Since Stitt hasn’t closed it, it’s still close,” says Gaddie. “It shouldn’t be this close. Republicans should have a 20-point margin, but they don’t.” Pollster Bill Shapard of The Sooner Poll says “I’m not so sure that Stitt will win. [Voters] don’t see Edmondson as a threat. He’s not a leftist… My gut says that Stitt has to do better, in rural areas especially. They want good schools and healthcare,” local issues that may transcend partisan concerns.
So “Leaning Republican” may be the most accurate assessment of the governor’s race in this heretofore stronghold of the GOP. Should Democrat Edmondson win, it probably won’t tilt Oklahoma into the Democratic column in 2020. But it will be a significant chink in the Republican armor in the GOP’s once near-solid South. Stay tuned.