The election results are nearly finalized and the damage across the country has been done. What was billed as a blue wave, after four years of the authoritarian, narcissistic incompetence of the Trump administration, never really hit. Democrats, after a lively but largely civil primary, were finally going to win the power to fix things. Demographics, an economic crisis and a worsening pandemic made the choice clear.
This was their moment.
Instead they narrowly captured the presidency with three states decided by less than 1% and three others by less than 3%, they failed to take the Senate in an outright majority, lost ground in the US House and suffered a catastrophic series of defeats at the state and local level in the election just before redistricting from the 2020 Census. Locally, the Oklahoma House saw an increase to its Republican supermajority by 5 votes to make it 82 to 19. The Senate is 39 to 9 Democrats, with a special in SD 22 for Stephanie Bice's old seat as she heads to congress after defeating Oklahoma's only federal Democrat Kendra Horn.
SQ 805 the major criminal justice reform measure faltered badly losing by nearly 20% and will only embolden the most punitive criminal legal system in the world to keep on punishing people despite the evidence showing it doesn't work. An effort to make modest reforms to a system hell-bent on destroying individuals and families for generations all for the cruel sport of punishment and profit was defeated by a fear-based campaign from law enforcement and their allies. It was an exceedingly rough night for progressives and the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile the Republican party that has fully embraced reactionary politics focusing almost exclusively on culture war issues, racial animus and xenophobia and who has direly mismanaged the pandemic, drastically overperformed expectations. As they lean further into paranoia, hatred and bigotry, many Democrats struggled to differentiate themselves meaningfully.
In Oklahoma, the justification being done by the political class, liberal elites and the few people clinging to any kind of silver lining ranges from blaming the Trump surge in a blood red state (a small part of it) to wanting to quit the opposition all together and just become Republicans (deeply disturbing). We breakdown what really happened, what we are doing wrong and what to do about it.
What happened in Oklahoma?
First, the top of the ticket and national conversation definitely drove some outcomes. In the absence of a significant local issue (like the Teacher Walkout in 2018), it is hard to escape the billions being spent in paid and earned media from the national race. Combined with the pandemic and our brains being slowly poisoned by the increasingly isolating algorithms on social media, it is hard to find anything that convinces people to deny their root programming and vote for a politician they've never heard of on the state and local level.
That said, blaming the top is justification for the many missteps and mistakes being made. Democrats in Oklahoma were horrifically outspent (unless you were Kendra Horn). It is very hard to get the voters you need, even in fairly favorable districts, when people have never heard from you and don't know a single thing about you.
Even some incumbents, in a presidential year with slightly elevated R turnout in some areas, will struggle without adequate, accessible and equitable resources. Add to it, the pandemic made door knocking a dicey effort with more mixed results than usual, which is how underfunded campaigns overcome the money disadvantage. Sadly, the local spending never really happened and that was avoidable given how much was spent on national efforts and even some larger local efforts. Putting all of our eggs in a couple baskets isn't working.
This became a root programming election. Voters, overwhelmed by a global pandemic, endless media coverage of Trump and his antics and increasing stress about basic life as our economy and previous way of life cratered, went with what they think they know. Dems ran a persuasion campaign game plan, when they needed to offer a rallying cry. In the age of hyper polarization and over the top claims and drama, there are very few persuadable voters (if there ever were any really). Every election is about getting your team to show up. Our teams are messy and contradictory but they respond to what people really want or really need. Republicans want these culture war fights, Democrats believe we need healthcare and a social safety net.
Many will ask, why is the programming so bad in Oklahoma? You can't overcome that! Why was it so bad in FL where a $15 minimum wage indexed to inflation passed 60% to 40% while Joe Biden lost the state to the person opposing a minimum wage increase (Trump)? Why is it that the conspiracy theorists, reactionaries, racists and trolls won seats in state legislatures all over the country while genuine, thoughtful people lost, in some cases badly? While many voters are lost to the right-wing brain worms, Oklahoma had the lowest voter participation in the country. Even with elevated turnout nationally, an incredible number of people in Oklahoma stayed home despite four years of nonstop coverage, a failed pandemic response and badly weakened economy. In a state dominated by a Republican party that fails repeatedly at governing, why didn't people show up and vote them out!?
What we are doing wrong?
There are lots of reasons but here are the big two, 1) Very few campaigns (except Stacey Abrams) are talking to unlikely voters (registering, informing, reminding, etc) and 2) Nobody can tell you confidently what the Oklahoma or even national Democratic party intends to do to make their life better. The only thing they are 100% positive about is they are not (and do not like) Donald Trump. That isn't enough! The good news is that both of these are solvable if we stop doing the failed strategies that clearly don't work.
Let's start with #2 first. Most people don't give a flip about politics. They can't get away from it but in their natural life, most voters have never seen the good guy win and actually go out and solve our problems using the incredible and expansive powers of the government or collective action of any sort. In Oklahoma, while run by a party and a Governor that is content to sit on their hands and do nothing while we remain at our highest level of COVID spread for going on four months, the opposition party (the Democrats) have no plan, no strategy and no message to change the conversation other than a one off press release or conference or some niche legislation they hope to pass next term to show they are doing something.
Perhaps fearing being labeled as socialists, liberals or whatever, the opposition party in Oklahoma do not take the ample opportunities they've been given to point out how the current government, completely dominated by one party, is one of the largest healthcare providers in the state and has the power to keep people safe. The Republicans have the power to do almost anything to stop this virus in its tracks, to help people who need it and prevent suffering from happening. They don't have to be incompetent, they could do it efficiently and effectively. They have the power but are cowards who refuse to use it. Stitt and his Republican colleagues aren't doing a damn thing! Perhaps try pointing that out.
If the first thing out of your mouth isn't highlighting a constituent's family member who coughed themselves to death alone over Zoom, you are missing a powerful opportunity to shape what this debate is really about! There are horror stories everywhere and our coronavirus response is ridiculous. There are entire continents (Australia), with conservative governments and 6x as many people, who have had less cases (and deaths) than the state of Oklahoma. COVID isn't spreading because of people flying into Oklahoma or travelers from abroad, we are giving it to each other, spreading it through families, nursing homes, schools, businesses and hospitals, because we are doing nothing to stop it.
Beyond that, Oklahoma Democrats (nationally they aren't much better) are so crushed and powerless, they seem like they can't even imagine what power or using it might look like. If one were building a state-wide platform and policies that voters might respond to, I'd start with healthcare (example: SQ 802, Medicaid Expansion) and drug legalization (example: SQ 788, Medical Marijuana) but in a state with an economy built on a house of cards and low rankings in many indicators like incarceration, education, food security and economic depravation, you have lots of options! The Republican party opposes everything that will make a working class person's life better. They support policies that will defund our schools, defund our hospitals and overcrowd our prisons. We are good at one thing, being friendly to businesses so they can set up shop and exploit a vulnerable and tenuous population, which, turns out, is pretty bad for business, so they still don't come!
Finally, Dems have been running as Republican lite for 20+ years AND LOSING! Brad Henry, the last Democratic Governor a mere 10 years ago, cut the state income tax that combined with cuts from R's on both sides of his term helped lead to the budget disasters of the late Fallin years and horrifying cuts to education, health and other services. Also in this span, we watched the legislature go from a close balance between parties to supermajorities for R's in both houses while losing every statewide office in very few elections, all while running moderate after moderate, always careful to hide any scent of progressivism. Kendra Horn ran on solid left of center issues (gun control, workers rights, healthcare access) two years ago in the rapidly bluing 5th district and won. Despite Biden doing 10% better than Trump did in 2016 in Oklahoma County, Horn made her closing argument in 2020 to spend thousands of ad dollars to dunk on universal healthcare in a state with the lowest insured rate in the country and a base who supports the idea at an almost 90% approval rate (and one Republicans have surprising support for too). Instead of inspiring supporters, many were left appalled.
Most Oklahoma Democratic victories in recent years are with significantly more progressive and bold candidates. In 2018, Senator Carri Hicks flipped a longtime Republican Senate seat and won it by 20%. That's nearly a 40% swing in four years. The lone bright spot on Tuesday was the election of Representative Mauree Turner in House District 88. While it is a safer seat, they had the highest margin of victory by a Democrat in the state and that is after defeating a multi-term incumbent in the primary who was always a safe bet for moderates.
But now let's go to the #1 thing we are doing wrong, reaching unlikely voters. This is actually a two parter. First, in a state like ours, if you want to win elections while caring about something other than reactionary, right-wing fever dream crap, you've got to make sure you are talking to the correct voters. Sometimes, those may even be nonvoters or unlikely voters in parts of town you don't often go to. Everyone talks a big game about voter registration and turnout but it, turns out, that it is really freaking hard and long work. After 2018, Stacey Abrams went to work and took her two point defeat and registered thousands of voters and might have flipped Georgia to Joe Biden and may net the Democrats two new Senate seats. With Oklahoma having the lowest turnout in the country, you have a lot of potential voters who could be activated if you spent time talking to them about what they need or want and had a coherent and corresponding message.
That brings me to the second part of this, which is that all of that work costs money. Oklahoma Dems are embarrassingly outspent. Oklahoma Watch just looked at PAC money (individual funding is similarly bad) and Republicans raised $3.5M to Dems $600K. This sounds insurmountable until you realize that ONE US House race and ONE ballot measure spent more than every state and local race in the state combined. Instead of showing us that ad calling Bice a bully for the 78th time, oh brilliant DCCC independent expenditure, why don't you make sure Kelly Albright doesn't lose by 4 points to a no-name dinosaur with an R next to his name, who next session we will find out is completely unqualified to be there MAKING THE LAWS OF OUR STATE!?
Spending goes a lot further in local races too. A recent study showed that down ballot ad spending REALLY helps people win. What better way to get out some new voters than by empowering the campaigns of people running on the same ticket as you! Get many times your ROI, talking about issues in the news or local social media channels that have people actually concerned vs the interests of some out of state mega nonprofit that thinks they know criminal justice reform OR whatever the hell isn't happening in DC while Trump and McConnell destroy our democracy! Many have raised this concern for a while to anyone willing to listen, but the mere suggestion of such a strategy brings swift condemnation. So instead, we lose.
For progressives (and surprisingly the R's actually do this somewhat well), you can't look at campaigns and candidates in hierarchies or isolation, they are all connected. They each have the ability to benefit (or hurt) each other. If you need enthusiasm, invest in people who have that (Rep Turner). If you need a good issue to get your voters excited, find the candidates working hard on those issues (OK County and Tulsa City Council). When voters show up for one, they'll likely show up (and vote) for all.
The R's definitely get this. They all try to run similar versions of the same play book. It is a disgusting play book that leans into the worst impulses of humanity and distorts the world in ways that make it hard to know what is going on but that is who we're up against and they do it together! This is about convincing your team that you've got their back and will make things better and getting them to show up when you need them.
Where do we go from here?
The old play book needs to die. Oklahoma has leaned all the way into the most reactionary, conservative policies and principles there are. This is increasingly revealed in our worsening pandemic. The attachment to white nationalism, conspiracy theories and selfishness on steroids is seen everywhere. The antidote isn't to run Republican lite and figure out which conspiracy theory you can tolerate or which marginalized group's rights and welfare you are going to disregard. It is to articulate how your ideas, policies and values will build a better world for everyone and convince the people who want that to join you.
Our discourse is trash. If some powerful, wealthy interest doesn't run a campaign for it, nobody wants to talk about it. We have to talk about the issues AND solutions that matter. Climate change, COVID mitigation, racial justice and economic justice are material issues to so many people. The people who want to take our country back to the days of even more savage oppression and individual nihilism cannot be allowed to win. Too many people are ready to adopt the narratives and frames of the people and entities who have caused our problems.
We need new frames and new narratives. We need a truly collective politic that stands against the cult of individualism and exploitation of modern capitalism. The answer isn't to adopt the lies, hatred and division of our opponents. We cannot hide our support for inclusiveness of all people in our communities and solving the real problems people have. The answer to culture war ideologues is not to adopt their frames but to fight back with radical inclusion. To challenge these frames at every opportunity. To make the case to voters, not right when we need them but in the weeks, months and years before the next election. Trumpism is strong and underestimating it is foolish. There will be worse authoritarians in the future.
We need to listen to the ideas and stories that can counter act this, equally strong and grounded in the values we actually believe. We are all in this together, nothing about us without us and no justice, no peace are more than just slogans. They are values that prioritize our collective well-being over hyper-individualism, white supremacy and bigotry. They are values that allow space for everyone to thrive, not just the people for whom our systems have been built the last 400 years. It is about a world where we care about the outcomes of our systems, not just the unequal opportunities. Changing hearts and minds takes time, investment and work. It is the only work that will change that which ails us and give us the chance to fix the problems we have and build a more just and equitable existence.
That works begins now. We are building that power. Join us, follow us, share our content and donate. Our focus in the coming months will shift to local elections in the winter and spring, state level policy fights during the next legislative session and providing a progressive alternative to our increasingly toxic discourse. Things can be better. We are going to have to make the case for a better world and fight for it.