THE results of Tuesday’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate said a lot about the sad state of the party in Oklahoma.
State Sen. Connie Johnson of Oklahoma City, a well-known member of the Legislature and a staunch defender of traditional Democratic ideals, was one of three Democrats who filed for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring incumbent Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee. The other two Democrats, as the Tulsa World put it in a news story last month, “are not considered serious candidates.”
Yet Johnson managed to win only 44 percent of the vote Tuesday and therefore faces a runoff in late August. Jim Rogers, a perennial candidate who generally does nothing more than stand on a street corner holding a sign, received 35 percent.
Do Oklahoma voters see the candidate’s last name and think of Will Rogers, who’s been dead 79 years this August, and figure that was good enough for them? Did Johnson, after reviewing the short and anemic roster of Democratic challengers, expect that she would coast to the general election in November and therefore not hustle as hard as she should have?
Perhaps the answer to both questions is yes. But our sense is the result offers further evidence of the Democratic Party’s continued decline in Oklahoma in the face of remarkable growth by the Republican Party. Neither trend appears likely to change any time soon.
In mid-January, the state had about 31,000 more registered Democrats than registered Republicans. Just three months later, in mid-April, the gap had shrunk to roughly 21,000. Democratic Party registration in Oklahoma peaked in 1989 at more than 1.4 million; it now stands at 882,000, and continues to fall.
The misguided policies of President Barack Obama probably deserve some of the blame for the Democratic Party’s misfortunes in Oklahoma. But only the recent misfortunes — the move away from the party predates Obama by many years. It was in the late 1990s and early 2000s that Republicans began making major gains at the Legislature, culminating in 2004 with the GOP taking control of the House for the first time in state history. Four years later, Republicans won the Senate.