Republicans at the national level want Oklahoma City’s progressive residents to accept their fate as outnumbered, outgunned voters in a bright red state. But the reality on the ground is not what they think in Oklahoma County.
When I moved back to Oklahoma nearly 30 years ago, there were six congressional districts. Of those six, four seats were held by Democrats: Mike Synar in the 2nd Congressional District, Wes Watkins in the 3rd, Dave McCurdy in the 4th and Glenn English in the 6th. The only Republican strongholds were the urban centers of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, where Mickey Edwards served in the 5th and Jim Inhofe in the 1st, respectively.
Our senate delegation was evenly divided in 1990, with Republican U.S. Sen. Don Nickles and Democratic U.S. Senator David Boren, who won all 77 counties as the incumbent that year against Republican Stephen Jones, who would go on to represent Timothy McVeigh at trial.
Then the red wave happened in 1994 and almost everything changed.
That year, Inhofe won Boren’s senate seat when Boren retired to become president of the University of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma sent only one Democrat to Washington, D.C.: William Brewster in the 3rd.
OpinionFrom George Lang, our lead opinion columnist
As for the 5th that includes Oklahoma City, it was a bloodbath for Democrats. Ernest Istook won 78 percent of the vote, besting predecessor Edwards by nine points.
Oklahoma City Democrats who did not become Republicans in the wake of the red wave learned to keep to themselves. In the days before social media, It was easy for Democrats to believe that each of them was alone in their neighborhood, their city, and their congressional district.
This time around, Republicans are pouring money into the Oklahoma City media market to unseat Horn, but a significant change is taking place in Oklahoma City that cannot be overcome by dollars alone.
According to data released Jan. 15 by the Oklahoma State Election Board, Oklahoma County is 37% Democrat and 43% Republican, with the remaining 20% either registered as independents or Libertarians.
That is a mere six-point spread between Democratic and Republican parties, a figure unfathomable as recently as 2018 when SoonerPoll confidently gave Russell a 10-point advantage over Horn.
On top of that, Democrats flipped four state House seats in the Oklahoma City metro in 2018, and a newly confident Oklahoma Democratic Party is coming for the rest.
Conventional wisdom about Oklahoma County voting habits did not hold, and they still don’t hold, no matter how Republicans argue that demographic changes are responsible for the reversal of fortune. No demographic shift can account for the near-parity of the two parties here, and it has more to do with urban versus rural attitudes than anything else.
Most American metro areas with over 1 million populations are represented by Democrats at both the national and state levels, and Oklahoma County follows suit as a purple county that voted for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson by about 28,000 votes over Gov. Kevin Stitt in 2018.
The hinterlands surrounding Oklahoma County tell a different story. Suburban, exurban and rural populations in Logan, Lincoln, Canadian and Cleveland counties still boast strongly Republican constituencies.
This results in an enormous urban-rural divide in how citizens prefer to be governed and represented, and the state of Oklahoma is still overwhelmingly rural.
Oklahoma County’s future as a blue island in a red sea is practically assured, with only Tulsa County possibly joining the archipelago.
With this in mind, Oklahoma’s 5th District will not be a sure thing for either party for years to come, but Democrats are ascendant.
Urban values like improved social services, bike lanes, mass transport and equality between races and sexes will continue to be important in Oklahoma County as its population grows. It is likely that no amount of anti-Nancy Pelosi politicking can overcome that.