With Republicans now enjoying majorities in the Oklahoma House and Senate, GOP legislative leaders are being forced to wrangle with a growing challenge — how to balance a broader spectrum of ideas and ideology as a steady stream of new conservatives prepare to take office.
Last week, four new Republicans secured posts in the state Legislature with victories in primary runoffs in races that drew no Democrats, including two new GOP senators who replace retiring Democrats.
Two of those new Republican members — Sen.-elect Nathan Dahm, of Broken Arrow, and Rep.-elect Ken Walker, of Tulsa, — defeated better-funded, chamber of commerce-backed opponents in the Republican primary.
Outgoing House Speaker Kris Steele’s battles with the right wing of the 70-member strong GOP caucus over the last two years were well documented, but now some lawmakers openly wonder whether a similar schism could emerge in the Senate, where Republicans are expected to build on their 32-16 majority.
“You’ve seen that divide in the House of Representatives the last couple of years,” said Senate Democratic leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore. “You haven’t really seen the same in the Senate, but who knows, that could change.
“I think as your caucus grows, you get more members and more issues are going to pop up.”
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman acknowledges the already conservative Oklahoma Senate likely will shift further to the right, but he downplayed any suggestion that there’s a growing rift among Republicans in the Senate.
“I haven’t seen that yet,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “The Senate and the House are really two different bodies.
“It’s my job to gauge the caucus and try to incorporate all of them into one team. I’m there to listen to everybody, take their ideas and mold one agenda we can all support.”
Dahm, who defeated Tim Wright for the Senate District 33 seat in Tulsa despite a more than 3-to-1 fundraising advantage for Wright, made it clear he sides with the right wing of the Republican Party.
“I’m more of a `liberty caucus’ side, for sure,” said Dahm, who works for his family’s commercial and residential cleaning business. “I’m grassroots, a strict constitutionalist.”
Still, Dahm, 29, said he feels confident there is plenty of common ground that can be reached within the Republican caucus to help move the state forward.
“There are obviously divisions, but I think we can come together and get a lot of things done,” Dahm said. “We all agree on the party platform, but there are just different styles.
“We’re watching out more for the individuals. We believe in God-given individual rights. The old guard is looking out more for special interests, in all honesty.”
On the House side, Steele is expected to be replaced by House Speaker-designate T.W. Shannon, who received the support of the right wing of the House GOP caucus in a tight race for speaker against Steele ally and Speaker Pro Tempore Jeff Hickman. Steele, who is being forced from office because of term limits, drew the ire of some ultra-conservatives at the start of his two-year reign as speaker in 2010 when he suggested lawmakers should put the state’s struggling economy and budget hole at the top of their agenda, rather than hot button conservative issues like immigration, gun rights and abortion.
Shannon, R-Lawton, said he doesn’t see the two goals — improving the state’s economy and pushing a social agenda — as mutually exclusive. Shannon acknowledges he faces a different challenge than Bingman trying to reach a consensus with a caucus more than twice the size of that in the Senate — currently 67 members.
But Shannon said he embraces the diversity of the Republican caucus and feels confident he can reach common ground despite the broad range of ideology.
“Diversity is a strength,” said Shannon, who is line to become Oklahoma’s first black House speaker. “It does become a little more difficult managing diverse opinions, but you can’t be afraid to have people who push back.
“I have no doubt that we’ll have some fights. We’ll fuss and push and pull, but that’s healthy. That’s the way the political process is designed. But at the end of the day, the majority rules.”