PROGNOSTICATORS blame the Republican Party's failure to win the presidential race on an overdependence on a handful of groups, particularly white and rural voters. But in Oklahoma, the Democrats' rapid decline is due largely to their failure to hold those voters.
For Oklahoma Democrats, that's as much a challenge to their future viability as are national Republican concerns over attracting minority voters. In presidential races, no Democratic candidate has won a single Oklahoma county since 2000. This year, for the first time, Republican congressional candidates carried every Oklahoma county. The Democratic Party continues to lose ground in the Legislature and now holds just one-fourth of Oklahoma Senate seats and 29 of 101 seats in the state House.
In both chambers, Democratic decline in rural areas accounts for much of the past decade's losses. This year, the McAlester Senate seat formerly held by Democratic icon Gene Stipe was won by a Republican. In the House, Republicans won an open seat in a district covering parts of Atoka, Garvin, Johnston and Murray counties. This shows that Democrats can't take any rural seat for granted, especially in races without an incumbent.
Given that a large share of remaining House and Senate Democrat seats are in rural areas, that's cause for Democratic concern. Not all of those districts are likely to flip, but Democrats can't simply assume voters will remain loyal.
At the same time, Democrats are showing some signs of life in urban seats. The party came within 18 votes of winning a Norman House district held by a Republican, and redistricting played a role in preserving other incumbent GOP seats in urban areas. Several Tulsa and Oklahoma City GOP seats are susceptible to Democratic takeover in future elections due to ongoing demographic changes.
That may forecast the future for state Democrats. After generations of winning elections as “Oklahoma Democrats” with different values than “Washington Democrats,” the party may now largely abandon those distinctions, becoming more openly liberal and urban. Statewide Democratic candidates will still have to project a moderate image to be competitive, but the composition of the party's legislative caucuses may tilt more to the political left.
While Oklahoma Democrats face major challenges, this doesn't mean Republicans have a perpetual lock on power. GOP failure can open the door for Democratic resurgence, and some subtle trends should worry state Republicans. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney got 891,325 Oklahoma votes, a decline of nearly 8 percent compared with the 960,165 votes received by John McCain in 2008. Democratic turnout was also lower this year, but if one-time Republican voters start staying home in larger numbers than their counterparts, Oklahoma Democrats will gain by default.
Nationally, the Republicans' challenge is to broaden their appeal to minorities, women and younger voters without driving out crucial elements of their base. In Oklahoma, the Democrats' challenge may be to transition into a more liberal, urban party without repelling suburban voters or severing all ties with rural voters.
In politics, voter preferences are never set in stone; the only constant is change. Given Oklahoma's dramatic political shift over the past decade, Republicans have no reason for hubris or complacency, just as national Democrats can't assume their 2012 presidential victory is any guarantor of future national success.