Wins give Democrats reason to be optimistic
ALTHOUGH the results of two races certainly don’t constitute a trend, the Oklahoma Democratic Party had reason to cheer last week as it saw both its candidates win special elections for seats in the Legislature. Republicans should take note.
In south Oklahoma City, immigration attorney Michael Brooks won with 54.6 percent of the vote in his race against Republican Joe Griffin for the Senate District 44 seat. In Tulsa, Democrat Karen Gaddis, a retired teacher, received 52.3 percent to defeat Tressa Nunley for the House District 75 seat.
Notably, these elections were needed because the previous occupants, both Republicans, left office amid scandal. Ralph Shortey resigned from the Senate in March shortly after being accused in a child prostitution case involving a 17-year-old boy. Gaddis won the seat vacated in February by Dan Kirby, who faced the prospect of being expelled by fellow House members after an investigation into two sexual harassment complaints against him.
The Republican candidates in these two races certainly weren’t helped by the residue of those scandals. Such events make it tough for the incumbent party — recall that a Democrat won the race for the Senate seat vacated by Owasso Republican Rick Brinkley, who resigned in 2015 following an embezzlement conviction.
Another advantage for last week’s winners is that they each ran in the previous general election — Brooks lost to Shortey in 2014, and Gaddis sought the District 75 seat in November. This no doubt helped with their name recognition among voters, and with their campaign infrastructure. They also had the chance to make the argument that they would have been the better choice the last time around, given what transpired.
Brooks and Gaddis also worked hard for their victories, and that cannot be overlooked. Particularly in special elections, where turnout is often much lower than in a general election, retail politics — knocking on doors and shaking hands — can go a long way.
Did President Trump impact the results? Perhaps. Longtime Republican pollster Pat McFerron noted that just as former President Barack Obama motivated GOP activists during his time in the White House, Democratic activists here and elsewhere are amped up by Trump.
“I don’t think these races were nationalized among voters, but I do think the campaign activity (volunteers, intensity, etc.) did swing because of the national dynamic,” McFerron said in an email.
It’s worth noting that in late 2015 and early 2016, Democrats picked up two seats in the Legislature in special elections — the Brinkley seat, and the House District 85 seat that became open due to the death of Rep. David Dank — but Democrats then lost ground in the House and Senate in the 2016 elections. And in early May of this year, a Republican won a special election to fill a vacated House seat. So it would be a mistake to read too much into last week’s results.
On the other hand, Oklahomans are frustrated with state government, particularly with much of the bumbling displayed this year by the Republican-dominated Legislature. Four other special elections in the months ahead should provide a clearer indication of whether voters are ready to weaken that domination just a bit.