GovernorBrad Henry (D)
SenatorsJames Inhofe (R)
Tom Coburn (R)
- 1 D, 4 R
- 1 through 5
Oklahoma’s Capitol dome, left unconstructed when the Capitol was opened in 1917, was finally finished in 2002. Similarly, Oklahoma’s history has been a story of stops and sudden starts. It was settled in a rush, first by the Five Civilized Tribes driven west by Andrew Jackson’s troops over the Trail of Tears in the 1830s. Then came white settlers one morning in April 1889, when, in the great land rush memorialized by novelist Edna Ferber and half a dozen Hollywood movies, thousands of homesteaders drove their wagons across the territorial line at the sound of a gunshot, the most adventurous or unscrupulous of them literally jumping the gun—the Sooners. In 1905, a convention of the Civilized Nations, as they became known, sought to have eastern Oklahoma admitted as a separate state of Sequoyah. The federal government turned a deaf ear to the Indians, and ended the tribal government. It combined the Indian and Oklahoma territories as a single state, which was admitted to the union in 1907.
The heritage of these hurried settlements is evident today. Oklahoma has the second-largest Indian population in the country, after California—273,000 in the 2000 census—though there is just one reservation and the status of many other tribal entities is often disputed. Some Indian tribes here have unsuccessfully sought a return of native lands and face high unemployment rates. But there has been much intermarriage over the years, and many Oklahomans—and not a few of its politicians—proudly claim Indian blood. There is an ongoing struggle to keep the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole languages from dying out—you can see street signs in the Cherokee alphabet in Tahlequah. The counties with a large Indian heritage in the eastern part of the state have been growing, while the Great Plains farm and oil counties west of Oklahoma City and Tulsa have lost population. Indians own 6% of businesses in Oklahoma, and make up about 7% of the population. In 2009, the Cherokee Nation purchased an aerospace company.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical recalled an Oklahoma on the brink of statehood in 1907, at which point the territory rapidly filled up with farmers, rising from 1.5 million people in 1907 to 2.4 million in 1930. Oil helped. The first well was drilled here in 1897 and by 1920, Tulsa was an oil boom town. Then in the 1930s came a decade of bust—or dust—as soil loosened by erosion was whipped into giant swirling clouds: The Dust Bowl. “On a single day, I heard, 50 million tons of soil were blown away,” American journalist John Gunther reported later. “People sat in Oklahoma City, with the sky invisible for three days in a row, holding dust masks over their faces and wet towels to protect their mouths at night, while the farms blew by.” Okies headed in droves west on U.S. 66 to the green land of California, and Oklahoma’s population steadily declined, falling to 2.2 million in 1950. It did not to reach its 1930 level again until 1970. The state’s population is 7% American Indian, 7% African-American, and 7% Hispanic.
Oil brought another boom. As the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 sent oil prices up, Oklahoma’s population rose from 2.5 million in 1970 to 3 million in 1980 and 3.3 million in 1983. Then, with the collapse of oil prices and of Oklahoma’s farm economy as well, it was bust again. A giddy rise was followed by a giddier fall. The rig count went from 882 in 1982 to 232 in 1983 and was just 186 in 2007. The 1990 census reported just 3.1 million Oklahomans. But in the 1990s, Oklahoma began building a more diversified economy, with high-tech employers as well as oil and gas firms. Population rose 10% in the decade, to 3.5 million in 2000, and another 5% to 3.6 million in 2008. High oil prices made it worthwhile to squeeze more from marginal wells, and Oklahoma’s natural gas—it’s the third state in production—has commanded high prices given strong demand. At the same time, Oklahoma has been one of the leading states in developing wind power, with utilities offering customers electricity produced from wind although at slightly higher than ordinary rates. Oklahoma continues to have above-average rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and crime, and a low rate of college graduates. But unemployment has been low, and the housing bust and the subsequent 2007-09 recession caused less distress here than in many faster-growing states.
Historically, Oklahoma was a Democratic state, with big Democratic margins in eastern counties and in southeast’s Little Dixie. But northwestern Oklahoma, settled by Kansans, has always been Republican, and starting in the 1950s, Tulsa and Oklahoma City leaned Republican too. Vestiges of its Democratic heritage remain. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans (though the 2008 exit poll showed conservatives outnumbering liberals 39%-16%). Oklahoma has not voted Democratic for president since 1964 and has not come close lately. Republican President George W. Bush carried all 77 counties in 2004, as did GOP nominee John McCain in 2008. Oklahoma has elected only one Democratic senator, David Boren, since 1966, and the only Democrat in its congressional delegation is his son Dan Boren. Lots of Oklahomans identify as conservative Democrats, and helped elect Democrat Brad Henry as governor in 2002 and to re-elect him by 67%-33% in 2006. But Republicans captured a 57-44 majority in the state House in 2004 and expanded it to 61-40 in 2008. For the first time in history, they won a majority, 26-22, in the state Senate in 2008.
In some respects Oklahoma politics has been a struggle between Oklahoma City and Tulsa Republicans and rural Democrats. Tulsa-based Republican Frank Keating, governor from 1994 and 2002, managed to get voters to pass a right-to-work law, long opposed by Democrats in the Legislature, by 54%-46% in a September 2001 referendum. But small town-based Democrat Henry profited from a referendum on quite a different subject, a ban on cockfighting, in his 2002 gubernatorial run. Oklahoma was one of only three states that allowed this “sport,” and urban voters helped the ban pass 56%-44%. But opposition to the ban brought out rural voters in droves, and they helped ban-opponent Henry defeat Republican Rep. Steve Largent 43.3%-42.6%. Henry is barred from running for a third term in 2010, and it’s not clear whether another cross-cutting issue will help determine who succeeds him. One possibility is immigration. In 2007, state Republican Rep. Randy Terrill led the drive that resulted in the Legislature passing one of the nation’s toughest laws on illegal immigrants. Law enforcement personnel are required to check the citizenship status of everyone arrested, applicants for driver’s licenses must establish their legal status, and public and private employers are required to use the federal eVerify system to establish legal status. The law has been challenged in federal court.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Oklahoma has been a solidly Republican state in presidential elections since the 1950s. There are no large blocs of voters here who back national Democrats, and most Oklahomans find national Republicans acceptable. It has been a long time since Oklahoma has been on anyone’s list of target states, and seems unlikely to be in the near future. While Tulsa and Oklahoma City were the Republicans’ strongholds from the 1950s to the 1990s, now many rural counties are even more so. President George W. Bush in 2004 and Republican nominee John McCain in 2008 carried all 77 counties in the state. This was McCain’s best state. He won with 65.6% of the vote, about the same as Bush in 2004. Indeed the two elections were almost carbon copies. McCain got 373 more votes than Bush and 2008 Democratic nominee Barack Obama got 1,470 fewer votes than 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry. But this was not Obama’s worst state. He had lower percentages in Wyoming and Utah, where there were third-party candidates, while Oklahoma alone of all the 50 states had none. There was no significant gender gap in Oklahoma and not much of an age gap: Young voters went 60% for McCain. And there are lots of conservative Democrats: 41% of white Democrats voted for McCain.
Oklahoma has had a presidential primary since it joined the Super Tuesday contests in 1988. That year, it voted 37%-35% for Texas neighbor George H. W. Bush over Kansas neighbor Bob Dole in the Republican primary, and it gave Al Gore a solid win in the Democratic primary. In the next three cycles, it was not seriously contested, and for 2004, the Legislature scheduled the primary for February, a week after New Hampshire. As one of two primaries in a southern-accented state that day (the other was South Carolina), Oklahoma was targeted by John Edwards and Wesley Clark, both desperate for a win after John Kerry’s triumphs in Iowa and New Hampshire. Clark won here—his first and only electoral victory—but with just 29.9%, to 29.5% for Edwards and 27% for Kerry. Kerry carried the counties including Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Norman (home of the University of Oklahoma), and not much else; Clark got big pluralities in the counties around Fort Sill and Altus Air Force Base, and not much else. Edwards carried most suburban and rural counties, but seldom by big pluralities.
In 2008, Oklahoma was joined by many other states on Super Tuesday on February 5, and did not attract too much attention. In the Democratic primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the early favorite here, and beat Obama 55%-31%. John Edwards got 10% although he had already dropped out of the race. Obama carried Oklahoma County (Oklahoma City), and Clinton carried the other 76 counties, with very big margins in eastern Oklahoma counties near her longtime home in Arkansas. Edwards finished second in three rural counties. Turnout was 417,000, a record, but not significantly higher than in 1988 or 1992. The Republican race was much closer. Fresh off victories in New Hampshire and Florida, McCain won with 37% of the vote, to 33% for Mike Huckabee and 25% for Mitt Romney. Oklahoma’s party registration law—and the fact that so many rural conservatives are still registered as Democrats—probably cost Huckabee a victory. He carried the eastern portion of the state, with a high of 58.5% in Adair County, on the border of his home state of Arkansas. McCain ran strongest in the western part of the state, with his best showing, 50%, in rural Ellis County. Turnout was 335,000, a record, and 27% above the previous high in 1996, a sign that the Republican Party continues to gain strength in the state.
|111th Congress: 1 D, 4 R|
Oklahoma lost one of its six House seats in the 2000 census, and for months there was a deadlock over redistricting between Republican Gov. Frank Keating and the Democratic Legislature. Keating wanted to keep a Tulsa-centered district, especially before the December 2001 special election in which his wife, Cathy Keating, ran for the Tulsa-centered 1st District seat vacated by Republican Rep. Steve Largent. But she lost the Republican nomination. In 2002, the solution appeared after 3rd District Rep. Wes Watkins announced his retirement. Watkins was a Republican (and a former Democrat) and the 3rd District was centered in Little Dixie; the seat was safe for Watkins, but Democrats carry the area in state elections and would have a good chance to win an open seat contest. The issue went to court, and in May 2002, a county judge ordered the adoption of a plan that eliminated Watkins’s district and gave the other incumbents safe seats. It also had the virtue of creating an Oklahoma City-centered district rather than splitting the city between several districts as it had been since 1981. Democrats, happy that Democratic incumbent Rep. Brad Carson got a safe seat, let the matter drop. Carson ran for the Senate in 2004 and lost to Tom Coburn, but Democrat Dan Boren has easily held the seat since.
Demographic projections indicate that Oklahoma will not gain or lose a seat after the 2010 census. Republicans, having won majorities in the state House in 2004 and in the state Senate in 2008, would likely draw the lines, no matter who is elected governor. But that probably makes little difference, because it is hard to imagine lines that will endanger Boren in the 2nd District or that will weaken the GOP’s hold on any of the other four seats.