Republicans next month have their best shot of claiming the House District 20 seat, which has been held by a Democrat since the district was created nearly 50 years ago.
The district has been moved from heavily Democratic southern Oklahoma north to an area that covers parts of Cleveland, Garvin, McClain and Pottawatomie counties. The district formerly covered Atoka County and parts of Bryan, Coal, Johnston and Pontotoc counties, where Democrats last year outnumbered Republicans nearly five to one; 14,574 Democrats compared with 3,299 Republicans and 1,302 independents.
The new District 20, which takes effect Nov. 14 after legislators are sworn into office, has more Republicans. Voting registration records as of Oct. 8 showed 8,535 Republicans compared with 8,327 Democrats, 2,322 independents and one Americans Elect Party member.
Rep. Paul Roan, D-Tishomingo, cannot seek re-election because of 12-year legislative term limits. House District 20 has been Democratic since 1965 when members of the House began being elected by district instead of by county.
A growing population in the Norman area and declining numbers of people in rural areas led to lawmakers last year shifting House District 20 from southern Oklahoma as part of their redistricting plan. Lawmakers must redraw legislative districts to reflect the state’s population every 10 years using the latest census.
Bobby Cleveland, a Republican from Slaughterville, and Matt Branstetter, a Democrat from Noble, are vying for the seat, which takes in southeastern Norman, most of the Noble School District, Slaughterville and Lexington. The race will be decided in the Nov. 6 general election.
Cleveland won 53.6 percent of the vote in a four-candidate race in the June 26 Republican presidential primary election; Branstetter got 69 percent of the vote in a two-candidate race.
“We’re finding very good reception with the people that we’re talking to so we’re excited,” Branstetter said. “It’s going to be a close race but I think that we certainly have an opportunity to win.
“Based on registration and based on likely voters it will be a close race — should be,” he said. “It’s been a targeted race. Democrats are wanting to hold that seat.”
Republicans hold a 67-31 edge in the House, and Cleveland said the GOP should be able to add the House District 20 seat. He said he’s being helped by the continued unpopularity of President Barack Obama, a Democrat who failed to win any of Oklahoma’s 77 counties four years ago.
“They’re concerned about Obamacare (another name for the Affordable Care Act),” Cleveland said. “They’re concerned about their guns; I get a lot of questions how I feel about the 2nd Amendment.”
Cleveland, chairman of the Cleveland County Republican Committee, said he wants to reduce state spending. He supports efforts to reduce the state’s personal income tax; lawmakers this year couldn’t agree on a plan to reduce the personal income tax, which brings in about $2 billion, or 30 percent, of the money legislators appropriate.
“My message is less government,” he said. “Less government is better government.”
Cleveland, 69, said legislators are passing too many laws.
“I don’t have a bunch of bills I want to pass, I don’t have an agenda,” he said. “We judge legislators by how many bills they write and I believe that’s wrong. We need to repeal bills.”
Cleveland said he would like to work on converting all the state’s vehicle fleet to operate on compressed natural gas. That would prompt more CNG filling stations to open.
Branstetter, 55, said his main focus is economic development. He’s been a past president of Noble’s chamber of commerce and has been involved in promoting public schools in his community.
“I’ve been very involved in promoting education in our community where my opponent has been a little more involved in party politics,” he said. “He may be more of a party guy and I’m more of a community guy.”
Branstetter said he would like the state to make funding a priority for roads and bridges and for education.
“If we’re going to move the state forward, we have to get out of the bottom — we’re consistently in the bottom two or three states in the nation (in education funding),” he said.
He said he would like to work on getting high-speed Internet service to more rural areas. “It’s going to create opportunities for jobs and education,” he said
Branstetter said voters tell him they don’t like battles over politics at the state level, which could lead to the level of gridlock that is troubling Congress.
“They would like to see more collaboration or compromise in order to move the state forward,” he said. “I believe that’s where my strong suit is in working in that type of an area. ... The one promise I’m making is I will be the person who listens to both sides of the issue before I cast a single vote.”
Branstetter said he opposes reducing the state’s personal income tax.
The Oklahoma Democratic Party has gotten involved, saying Cleveland voted twice in an earlier election and questioned whether he was ever prosecuted.
Cleveland said he voted twice in an election 11 years ago; he had forgotten he’d cast an absentee ballot and then went to his polling place to vote.
“It was an accident,” he said. “I did it; I never denied that I did it. It was a mistake.”
He said news releases distributed by Democratic Party Chairman Wallace Collins bringing up the subject are “an act of desperation.”
Branstetter is staying out of it. “I’m certainly not trying to make it an issue. The issue is who’s going to be able to work for the benefit of the district and obviously I believe I’m that guy.”