Where Have All The Candidates Gone?

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

It comes as no surprise that so-called “big-name” Democrats in Oklahoma haven’t emerged yet to challenge Republicans in 2014 for top statewide positions, including the governor’s office.

Here’s some rather non-startling information: If the big names ran, whoever they are, they would most certainly lose, and that would mean a lot of money and energy would have been expended in what many would say is a futile effort from the beginning.

Republicans have a vice-like grip on this state right now, except in urban Tulsa and Oklahoma City pockets and scattered state areas because, as the prevailing wisdom goes, Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, remains highly unpopular here. It’s a backlash. One interesting question remains how much of this has to do with basic racism among some Oklahomans, which is often difficult to quantify when solely looking at election numbers or considering anecdotal evidence and historical precedent.

I know Republicans will point to the election of House Speaker T.W. Shannon, who is of American-Indian and African-American ancestry, as refutation of the racism argument, but Shannon is deeply conservative and goes out of his way to play out the GOP tropes and talking points to secure his conservative bonafides. He espouses the extremist views of a party that is deeply white and intolerant. He provides the cover when Republicans here are accused of intolerance. He has a particular role, and it’s frankly to be mentioned in paragraphs like this one in the media as a counter argument to charges of GOP bigotry on the state and national level.

The point is that the Obama hysteria here is so rootless that it pushes one to think that racism has to be the key. Obamacare? Well, some of the key elements of the Affordable Care Act aren’t even in effect yet. There are simply no real horror stories about the new law here. It’s all just spooky speculation of what could happen. The bad economy? Well, Oklahoma has done much better in the economic downturn that started under a Republican president than most states. Oklahoma City’s unemployment rate, for example, has been one of the lowest in the nation among metropolitan cities for several months. Obama’s supposed “liberal values” seeping into the state? Well, the Oklahoma legislation under Republican domination has passed a bevy of ultra-conservative bills in recent years. What more can a conservative ask for?

Oklahoma is doing well in an economic sense, and its Republican legislature is pumping out the right-wing extremist legislation session after session. So what’s this Obama-hatred all about? I continue to argue that Obama still represents “the other” to many Oklahomans, and much of that is tied to bigotry. There’s no way to quantify this. You can’t do it by survey or interviews in the contemporary world in which the open expression of racism is now culturally forbidden. Few people will admit they’re racists. Even more who do have views of Obama tainted by racism probably aren’t consciously aware of the fact. I argue that this concealed, and, in some cases, subtle institutionalized bigotry helps produce the anti-Obama hysteria here that has no basis in fact. This, in turn, creates fear, which results in low-information voters exercising their right to vote based on misplaced visceral judgments that often conflict with their economic interests.

But that doesn’t solve anything for Democrats here. They are faced with simply waiting out Obama’s second term or investing a lot of money and time for probably nothing. One argument is that Democrats should field the best candidates possible and run campaigns for statewide offices for the experience and to engage younger activists, but the reality is that when everyone knows they are engaged in a losing cause a sense of deflation can set in. The impact of that deflation may well outweigh the gaining of election experience.

Who has a chance, anyway? Former Gov. Brad Henry could run against U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe or try for a Congressional seat, but that seems unlikely given that he hasn’t said anything about it. House Minority Leader Scott Inman has a following and is widely respected among Democrats, but could he really upset Gov. Mary Fallin in her reelection bid? What about state Senator Minority Leader Sean Burrage? Former state Sen. Andrew Rice, who ran against Inhofe in 2008, is always mentioned as a candidate for statewide office, but he has said, according to media reports, he doesn’t want to run for office again until his children are older. Former Corporation Commissioner Jim Roth? There are other Democrats with some name recognition, but, frankly, 2014 is shaping up as another banner year for Republicans here. Things could change, but even then it’s difficult to imagine a series of events that could turn it around for Democrats in the near future.

Some Democratic candidates have emerged to challenge state Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, and that’s great, but it’s just not the same thing as having a strong Democratic candidate who could actually really challenge Fallin or Inhofe.

So it goes for Democrats in Oklahoma these days, and the media here isn’t going to help Democrats either. The Tulsa World, under new ownership, has even announced it plans to “fix” the perception that its editorial page is too far to the left. We all know The Oklahoman is one of the most conservative newspapers in the country. Local television news here and elsewhere has become pretty much worthless in terms of any in-depth political coverage that might enlighten viewers beyond the typical dichotomies and clichés. Talk radio remains deeply conservative. Local and state internet sites and discussion boards, along with social media, have not proven to be game changers—at least this is my perception—in any political context here, left or right, though that could change.

It might be a waiting game for Democrats here that goes on for a while, especially if Hillary Clinton becomes the next president. Although the Clintons probably arouse less animosity here than Obama, it’s certain that Hillary Clinton and her husband would face a demeaning onslaught of rhetoric here during her candidacy and after her election if that were to happen, and right now I would bet she would be elected with about the same numbers, if not more, than Obama in 2012.

What has to happen in Oklahoma is a voting revolution from the ground up once people grow tired of and get angry about GOP policies that favor the privileged over the middle class. Once people wake up to wealth disparity and income inequality here and in the south, the conservative movement will implode through its own excesses. Its false and misleading populism with then be exposed, and its power will be neutralized for generations.

What progressives CAN do is find smaller stages on which they can enact a difference. For example, Oklahoma City Councilman Ed Shadid is running for mayor in 2014. His election would bring progressive ideas and initiatives to this area, and might very well be a start of something that can be translated into more election victories for progressive candidates elsewhere in this area and even the state.