OKLAHOMA CITY — Nearly 70% of Oklahoma’s state legislative elections will be decided without a single vote cast in November.
Those uncontested, no-voters-required races span the state — from Bartlesville to Edmond to west Lawton, where a former Oklahoma Sooners football player named Larry Bush lost the closest state House race in 2018.
That November, nearly 75% of House and Senate races statewide included candidates from at least two parties.
Four years later, 182 Republicans filed to run for legislative seats and only 58 Democrats. After three unsuccessful campaigns, Bush, an OU defensive back in the 1990s and a Democrat, didn’t try again.
“Campaigning takes a toll on your livelihood and your family, every aspect of your life,” Bush said last month from his Lawton insurance office. “You’re putting everything out there, and a lot of people can’t do that.”
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When Bush started his first campaign in 2016, House District 62 showed signs of transitioning from red to purple. Half of its population identifies as Black, Hispanic or mixed race. Democrat Joe Dorman’s 2014 gubernatorial bid came up nine votes shy there.
Bush lost but ran again two years later, this time facing a 23-year-old city employee and former OU Student Government Association president named Daniel Pae. In public forums, Bush vowed to support teacher pay raises and criminal justice reform efforts. Pae took similar stances while proposing legislation to support veterans and small businesses.
Bolstered by donations from Republican leadership, including a $2,000 contribution from House Speaker Charles McCall, Pae approached Election Day with the fundraising edge. Bush relied mostly on personal contributions of less than $500.
This year, HD 62 was decided when nobody filed to run against Pae.
Oklahoma voters will decide only 31 of 101 House races and seven of 24 Senate races on Nov. 8, a far cry from those 2018 midterms, when the statewide teacher walkout inspired more than 100 active and retired teachers, support staff and school board members to file for state legislative seats.
Though many of those contests were Republican landslides, a handful of GOP-leaning districts were won by margins of 6% or less, including:
in Muskogee, where Republican Chris Sneed defeated Jack Reavis with 53% of the votes in HD 14;
in Sequoyah County, where Republican Jim Olsen defeated Tom Stites with 52.8% of the votes in HD 2;
and in western Oklahoma, where Republican Todd Russ defeated Dennis Dugger with 52.7% of votes in HD 55.
This year, none of those districts has a Democratic candidate.
Uncontested races spiked in 2020, when few Democrats beyond the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metros ran. Party leaders blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and predicted a 2022 rebound.
The opposite happened. Oklahoma now ranks among the nation’s least competitive states for legislative races.
Ballotpedia, a nonprofit digital encyclopedia that compiles election information, provided Oklahoma Watch with data from 39 of 44 states that have legislative races on the ballot this year. Only Alabama has a higher percentage of seats without major party competition.
Without competitive local races, voters are more likely to become disengaged or feel alienated, studies have found. A 2011 Georgetown University study found that state legislators who run unopposed are less effective and less engaged with constituents.
Bush said he fears that some members of his community, many already skeptical that their vote matters, will continue to lose faith in the democratic process if the seat remains uncompetitive.
“Once people get used to not voting, it becomes a habit that affects not only this election but the next election cycle,” he said. “Having more candidates out there certainly helps the cause and helps our party, so it’s discouraging.”
Pae, who serves in the House Government Modernization and Technology committees, did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Seeds of GOP dominance
Oklahoma Watch interviewed political experts, local organizers and current and former legislative candidates to gauge why the number of uncompetitive races is rising. Expanding Republican influence and success in attracting voters and candidates were the most commonly cited contributors.
A Republican will occupy 74 of the 87 state legislative seats already decided. Nearly 40% of them faced a challenger who in most cases campaigned on right-wing social issues and loyalty to Donald Trump.
As the GOP built a supermajority in both chambers, it has exercised great influence on state government processes, including the once-per-decade redrawing of congressional and state legislative boundaries.
Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairwoman Alicia Andrews said Republican lawmakers used last fall’s redistricting special session to protect incumbents and thwart competitive races.
A.J. Ferate, the state GOP Party chairman, did not respond to interview requests for this story. Republican leaders stressed that they did not consider party affiliation or race when redistricting officials have been accused of partisan gerrymandering.
Lawmakers drew a predominately Black, Democratic-leaning neighborhood just north of the Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport from Pae’s HD 62 into HD 64. In replacement, they added a block of high-income, Republican-leaning housing developments to HD 62.
“I could talk someone into running for a seat, but the way they’ve drawn the seats makes it nearly impossible for a Democrat to even have the remotest of chances,” Andrews said.
GOP voters are increasingly deciding who ends up at the Capitol in the primary elections, which had 17 more Republican legislative races than the general election ballots will include in November.
Michael Crespin, director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, said the new maps have likely boosted some incumbents and discouraged challengers from running.
“My guess is 2018 was a real high point for people running for office, and now a lot of that enthusiasm has waned we’re going back to normal,” Crespin said.
Jennifer Esau, a special education teacher from Claremore, ran unsuccessfully for Senate District 2 as a Democrat in 2018. She’s running again, vowing to push for increased public education funding and better health care access.
Teachers haven’t lost their sense of political engagement, Esau said, but many have been worn down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a big commitment to run for office, working all day just like anyone and then coming home and making the fundraising calls or knocking doors,” she said.
‘The Republican bandwagon’
Carter Johnson, outreach director for the United Rural Democrats of Oklahoma, said a lack of funding and external support makes it difficult for rural Democrats to differentiate themselves from the national party. Candidates who don’t have prior political experience or high name recognition are particularly vulnerable, he said.
Locked in a tight race for the eastern Oklahoma House seat vacated by John Bennett, Tom Stites saw his Republican opposition spend thousands connecting him to controversial Democrats.
“They put me and Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi on a big billboard in one of the main areas of the county, even though I never supported them,” Stites said. “It’s just such a caustic environment. I don’t want to say it’s embittered me, but in some ways but it has.”
Republican Jim Olsen, who overtook Stites with 53% of votes, since has gone unopposed through two election cycles. The 62-year-old Roland legislator recently sponsored two so-called election security bills and a measure to retroactively legalize conversion therapy on LGBTQ individuals.
Through the late-2010s, moderate-to-conservative Democrats from places like Idabel and McAlester ran successful state House campaigns. As the Republican Party made voter registration gains in rural areas, the state’s Democratic caucus concentrated in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Norman and Stillwater.
“It’s a tough thing to do in eastern Oklahoma right now, running as a Democrat,” Stites said. “It’s much easier to jump on the Republican bandwagon.”
Bush, the insurance agent and former OU football player, said the party needs to focus on local organizing and outreach to attract new candidates.
“We’ve got to have a grassroots effort similar to the one Stacey Abrams in Georgia and those areas have had if we’re going to have any chance of getting any momentum back here,” Bush said. “A lot of it has to do with the younger generation and getting them involved.”
Crespin said self-employed lawyers and those with more flexible careers, allowing for time to campaign, are more likely to consider a run for state office. An Oklahoma Watch review found that more than two-thirds of sitting state senators are attorneys, business owners, ranchers or retired.
“It’s a hard job being a state representative,” Crespin said. “It doesn’t pay that great, and it’s also weird because it’s a full-time job that’s technically part-time, so a lot of people can’t do it.”