Faced with low approval ratings, Oklahoma legislators are already seeing signs that they could be up against greater competition in trying to retain their seats in the 2018 election.
Campaign fundraising records indicate that 13 lawmakers have already drawn challengers – a sharp increase over the number that had filed by this stage in the 2016 election cycle. By the end of August 2015, just one lawmaker had drawn an opponent.
The total number of both challengers and candidates who have launched early campaigns to fill a term-limited legislator’s open seat also has increased. Oklahoma Ethics Commission records show that 46 candidates, not counting incumbents, have formed campaign contribution committees. That’s a 21 percent increase over the number who had formed campaigns by this time for the 2016 election, which saw the greatest number of candidates filing for office in the state’s history.
More than seven months remain before the formal mid-April candidate filing period.
The early filings coincide with a newly released SoonerPoll survey showing that just 29.7 percent of likely voters have a favorable opinion of the Legislature.
Bill Shapard, founder of the polling group, said it is difficult to say how many challengers will ultimately enter the race for one of the 101 House seats and 24 Senate seats up for grabs in November 2018.
But voter anger over the Legislature’s handling of the budget and of matters such as school funding could prompt more candidates to jump in.
“I think anytime there is chaos at 23rd and Lincoln, that just invites more candidates to run for public office,” he said.
Of the 46 non-incumbent legislative candidates who have registered fundraising committees, 28 are Republicans and 16 are Democrats. An independent and a Libertarian also have formed committees.
If past years are an indication, many more will enter the race. In 2016, the bulk of the campaign contribution organization filings came after Jan. 1 and increased leading up to the April filing period.
Nevertheless, 20 incumbents won re-election that year without facing a challenger. One reason was that Democrats, in particular, struggled to field candidates in many districts, failing to put a single candidate in 33 races. The trend was most evident in rural areas, where registered Republicans far outnumbered Democrats.
Oklahoma Democratic Party Chair Anna Langthorn said Democratic candidates could have a better chance this year because voters increasingly disapprove of how the GOP-led Legislature has managed the state.
“Republicans have had power over the state for over a decade,” she said. “And I don’t think things have gotten better.”
Of the 16 Democratic candidates who have announced 2018 runs, nine are seeking open seats and the rest are challenging sitting Republicans.
Meanwhile, 22 of the Republicans are running for open seats, and the others are taking on members of their own party.
But like in past years, Shapard said, incumbents will be hard to defeat. Even though voters may disapprove of the Legislature as a whole, they tend to think much more highly of their representatives. He also said Democrats will continue to struggle to make significant gains.
The recent SoonerPoll found that 58 percent of respondents believe Oklahoma is headed in the wrong direction. But when asked who is best at running the state, 54.7 percent named the Republican Party compared with 33.6 percent for the Democratic Party.
Democrats performed better when asked who is best at managing specific functions, such as funding K-12 education.
Shapard said his polling indicates voters are not quite ready to boot out incumbents en masse. But that could start to change if lawmakers don’t find adequate budget solutions during a possible special session this year or next year’s regular session.
“The (Legislature’s approval numbers) aren’t very good, but they could get worse,” he said. “A lot can happen in the next three to six months.”