Inside the Midterms' Biggest House Upset

A localized message, a statewide educational crisis, and a late outside expenditure aided Kendra Horn's victory in Oklahoma.

Kendra Horn at a forum for Oklahoma 5th Congressional District Democratic candidates in Edmond, Okla. on May 10
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Nov. 26, 2018, 8 p.m.

It was the end of October when Howard Wolfson, a Democratic operative charged with investing more than $100 million in the midterms on behalf of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was looking for a district with upset potential.

He narrowed down a list of seats to a few in Georgia and Texas, and one in Oklahoma City, that all met two criteria: They contained a large number of college graduates and were garnering little national attention.

Donald Trump carried Oklahoma’s 5th District by almost 14 points, and the incumbent was above 50 percent in a poll commissioned by Bloomberg’s PAC. But the Democratic candidate for governor was up by double digits in the district, and Wolfson already had a topic in mind for an ad: Republican Rep. Steve Russell’s school-funding votes.

“Russell was winning by 6 points but, look, sometimes you just go with your gut,” Wolfson said. “My gut said the education issue would cut through.”

Wolfson made a $400,000 ad buy that began on Nov. 1. Six days later, Kendra Horn, the Democratic nominee, delivered the electoral shock of the cycle by defeating Russell by some 3,300 votes.

Russell, a 21-year Army veteran who was part of the unit that captured Saddam Hussein, attributed his loss to the changing demographics of the Oklahoma City metropolis, which has seen an increase in minorities and millennials.

But that element alone likely doesn’t account for Horn’s victory in a district where Republicans have a registration advantage of more than 27,000 and the number of registered Democrats fell by about 10,000 since 2016, according to state election data.

Strategists from both parties offer a more nuanced explanation: Horn proved to be a disciplined candidate who honed in on a moderate message centered on education and health care, easily contrasting herself with an incumbent who refused to go negative. Meanwhile, a statewide school-funding crisis ensured that the race was dominated by local issues and inspired new voters to mobilize.

That hyper-localization provided Horn with a crucial advantage.

Trump remains popular in the district, so Russell was instead linked to Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, who has the lowest approval rating of any governor in the country, and her government, which was in the midst of an education catastrophe that led thousands of teachers to launch a nine-day strike. Oklahoma has slashed its education funding by nearly 30 percent per student since 2008.

Horn’s campaign and Bloomberg's PAC both ran ads hitting Russell for failing to improve school budgets, juxtaposing images of him and Fallin.

“Local and state issues were promoted to a federal level, which they aren’t,” Russell said in an interview in the Capitol, where he expressed frustration at being attacked over a matter in which he has no jurisdiction.

Some voters, he said, may have gone to the polls under the misconception that change in congressional representation could create change in state government: “If you don’t study the issues, like a dog lapping up antifreeze, you’ll lick it up; it tastes good. There’s consequences.”

The teachers' strike coincided with the end of the state's filing period, and several educators launched campaigns for public office. For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats fielded state legislative candidates in every seat that falls within Oklahoma County, according to Mark Faulk, the chairman of the county’s Democratic Party.

"We watched teachers on livestream every day try to meet with legislators," Faulk said. "They avoided them in the hall and then they said catty things about them, and our governor said derogatory things about the teachers. It was really just an anti-incumbent mood in general."

Four state legislative seats flipped from red to blue in Oklahoma County, which casts nearly 90 percent of the votes in the 5th District, and the increase in contested races helped turn out new voters.

"I’m telling our candidates, even the ones that lost running for the legislature, 'You helped elect Kendra Horn,'" Faulk said.

Though Horn is a first-time candidate, she is not a political novice, having served as a press secretary to a congressman and managed a Democratic gubernatorial campaign in 2014.

In some ways, Russell failed to take Horn's candidacy seriously. She outraised Russell and, at more than $900,000, nearly doubled his spending for the race by mid-October. Russell spent less than $30,000 in the first half of October, despite boasting some $450,000 in the bank at the start of the month.

Russell refused to run negative ads, even as the polls tightened, a strategy questioned by his Republican House colleagues and his campaign team.

"If you don’t define your opponent in a year like this, your opponent is going to define you," said Republican Rep. Frank Lucas, who represents the Panhandle and western part of the state. "It looks like that’s what happened."

Horn's campaign got little notice outside of Oklahoma. She didn't make it onto the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's 92-candidate Red to Blue program for top House campaigns. And EMILY's List didn't endorse her until October.

Her fundraising, while impressive, lagged behind other Democratic challengers who pulled in million-dollar quarters from ActBlue. Horn’s campaign had just five full-time staffers and relied heavily on volunteers. It didn't have the resources to poll in the final stretch and it had to forgo a mail program for the general election, according to campaign manager Ward Curtin.

Horn began airing TV ads just after Labor Day, but went dark for three weeks beginning in late September to save resources. The campaign struggled to pull together $12,000 at the end to run digital ads.

When Curtin called to tell Horn about Bloomberg's outside spending, she said she was in disbelief: "I almost fell over. I was shocked."

The campaign at first worried the ad might be generic or nationalize a race they had worked so hard to keep local.

“Then we saw their spot,” Curtin said. “The branding looked like ours. The messaging was right. They had picked up on what we were trying to get across and definitely amplified it.”

At a postelection event at the Eaton hotel in Washington, Horn described her message as laser-focused on reducing health care costs, increasing education funding, and making college more affordable.

"The president didn’t really enter into our conversation throughout the entire campaign," she said during a panel titled "What it Takes to Win in Trump Country."

"That really kept us out of that national narrative," she said, "because if we were to try to follow that, it's just like this ping-pong and that's not what people, when you got right down to it, were concerned about."

Her emphasis on those issues appears to have won her enough crossover votes.

Even Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, called Horn a "great candidate," noting her experience in politics and her ability to raise money without "much help from anybody."

Horn will be a top GOP target in 2020, and Republicans insist they have a solid bench in the district. In an interview last week, Russell declined to rule out a comeback bid but said it was too early to seriously consider it.

"I warned the NRCC over a year ago to keep an eye on this," Cole said. "But this happens every cycle—one or two jump up and bite you on each side."

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