Questions That Could Shape a Pivotal Election

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Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

May Morgan signs her name in front of a volunteer before receiving a ballot at the Grady County Election Board in Chickasha on Friday, the second day of early voting. Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

After months of campaigning and millions of dollars spent, Election Day is here.

And the stakes are high: Oklahoma voters will select the state’s first new governor in eight years, decide who occupies what could be a pivotal U.S. House seat and determine how next year’s Legislature will look.

Here are some of the major questions that could shape the results.

Can swing voters propel Edmondson to victory?

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Drew Edmondson faces a tough road to victory.

The former state attorney general will likely need more than just strong Democratic turnout to best Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt.

The latest voter registration numbers, as of Nov. 1, show there are 222,091 more registered Republicans (total of 1,003,182) than registered Democrats (total of 781,091).

That means unless Democratic turnout greatly outpaces that of Republicans, Edmondson will need to win over a large share of the state’s 327,895 registered independents or convince a sizable number of Republican voters to cross party lines –without losing Democratic voters.
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The numbers show Edmondson will face a more difficult path to the governor’s mansion than the last Democratic governor, Brad Henry, did when he was first elected in 2002.

Henry had the luxury of running well before 2015, the last year registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the state.

In 2002, Democrats made up 53 percent of registered voters while Republicans made up 36 percent. Even with that advantage, Henry won by less than 1 percentage point over Republican Steve Largent and benefited from then-independent candidate Gary Richardson splitting much of the conservative vote.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Gubernatorial candidates Kevin Stitt and Drew Edmondson are shown at an Aug. 24 forum in Oklahoma City sponsored by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

But there is some good news for Edmondson: A Sept. 5-10 SoonerPoll survey of 407 likely voters found that he was faring far better than Stitt at attracting independent voters, with 50.6 percent backing him. Only 25.6 percent of independents surveyed said they would vote for Stitt. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.

Edmondson’s chances could see a boost from teachers and pro-public- education voters from both major parties.

Edmondson was endorsed by the Oklahoma Education Association and campaigned with educators who participated in this year’s teacher walkout and members of the record-setting cadre of teachers who ran for office this year.

Can Steve Russell survive a blue wave?

Republicans have held all five of Oklahoma’s congressional seats since Democrat Dan Boren chose not to seek re-election in 2012.

Nonpartisan election forecasters, including the University of Virginia Center for Politics, FiveThirtyEight and the Cook Political Report, predict the GOP will maintain control of four of the seats, with easy wins for incumbents Markwayne Mullin, Frank Lucas, Tom Cole and nominee Kevin Hern.

But Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Russell’s bid for a third term representing the 5th District, which covers Oklahoma City and the central part of the state, is expected to be more competitive.

The three forecasting sites still predict a Russell win. But they say it’s not a done deal, with FiveThirtyEight giving Democratic challenger Kendra Horn a nearly 20 percent chance of pulling off an upset.

Voter registration numbers suggest Horn would have an easier path to victory than Edmondson.

As of Nov. 1, Democrats made up 43 percent of the district’s voters compared with 38 percent of the state as a whole. Republicans, meanwhile, made up 44 percent of the district and 46 percent statewide.

But 5th District voters have supported GOP candidates in modern congressional and presidential races for nearly a half-century.

A Horn win would be the first time a Democrat has held the seat since former U.S. Rep. John Jarman changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 1975.

In the 5th District, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney beat former President Barack Obama, 59 percent to 41 percent, in 2012. Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton, 53 percent to 40 percent, in 2016.

That suggests Horn’s best bet is for Democrats across the country to outperform their expectations and the so-called “blue wave” to spill into deep-red Oklahoma.

One advantage Horn holds is fundraising.

As of Oct. 17, the latest Federal Election Commission filing period, Horn had raised about $1,016,000 to Russell’s $850,075.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Teachers, students and supporters marched in front of the State Capitol on April 2 during a walkout aimed at increasing education funding.

Will education supporters give Democrats more legislative seats? 

If Democrats want to improve their numbers in the Legislature this year, they must break a streak dating back to the 1980s.

Democrats have failed to pick up seats following every general election since 1988 – a year when Democrats controlled about 70 percent of House or Senate seats.

Since then, Republicans have either picked up seats or held their ground after each general election. Now they control nearly three-fourths of the Legislature: 72 of 101 House seats and 38 of 46 Senate seats.

No one expects Democrats to pick up enough seats to regain control of either chamber. But Democrats hope to at least stop the bleeding and begin building up their numbers – helped by anger over education funding that led to a teacher walkout and more educators running for the Legislature.

About 40 percent of the make-up of the 58th Legislature has already been set. Half of the Senate is not up for re-election this year and 33 candidates (18 Republicans and 15 Democrats) have secured their seats by not drawing general-election opponents.

With a substantial number of lawmakers retiring or prohibited from running because of term limits, plenty of seats could be up for grabs on Tuesday.

In the House, 36 races do not feature an incumbent, including 24 seats held by a Republican, eight held by a Democrat and two vacant. Also in the House, there are 11 open seats, including six controlled by Republicans, three by Democrats; two are vacant.

Newly released voter registration numbers show several of these seats are ripe for switching parties.

As of Nov. 1, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in two districts whose seats are currently held by Democrats who aren’t seeking re-election: the seat held by Rep. Chuck Hoskin, D-Vinita, and the seat being vacated by Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater.

Democrats, however, also have opportunities to pick up seats.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in six districts whose seats are held by Republicans. These are held by outgoing Reps. Pat Ownby, R-Admore; Todd Thomsen, R-Ada; John Montgomery, R-Lawton; George Faught, R-Muskogee; Rick West, R-Heavener; and Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate.

Democrats additionally make up the bulk (45 out of 66 candidates) of the so-called “teacher caucus” – a group of current and former school educators or administrators who filed for office in the final days of the two-week long teacher walkout.

If pro-public education voters show up in force, it could make a difference in several key races. 

David Fritze / Oklahoma Watch

The Oklahoma House gallery was packed on Nov. 8, 2017, as representatives spent hours discussing and debating a tax package to address the state’s severe budget shortfall. That measure fell short.

Will more incumbents go down?

So far, the 2018 election cycle hasn’t been kind to lawmakers seeking re-election.

Twelve incumbents, all Republicans, were ousted by members of their own party in primary or runoff elections.

Eight lawmakers in this group voted against the $425 million tax bill, known as HB1010xx, that paid for the teacher pay package.

That could be bad news for the four other lawmakers – Reps. Tom Gann, R-Inola; Rep. Tommy Hardin, R-Madill; Kevin West, R-Grove; and Sen. Mark Allen, R-Spiro – who also voted against the tax-raising bill. Public education advocates have targeted those who opposed the bill.

But it’s unclear if the lawmakers voted out so far were victims of retribution or a general anti-incumbent sentiment among voters.

The latter could mean bad news for those seeking re-election: 37 Republicans, 29 in the House and eight in the Senate, and eight Democrats, all in the House.

But one statistic should put them more at ease: Since 2014, only two incumbents have been defeated by general-election opponents. When incumbents go down, it is typically in primaries.