Voting trends should concern Republicans
DEMOCRATS just won a longtime Republican House seat in Norman in a special election, showing they have the political wind at their backs in Oklahoma. Since April 2015, Democrats have won four of five special elections in seats previously held by Republicans.
There are many explanations for these outcomes, and several bear noting. Despite their large majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans shouldn’t simply shrug off the results.
Raw vote totals are revealing. In House District 46, Democrat Jacob Rosecrants ran in the November 2016 general election and last week’s special election. In November, he drew 7,201 votes and lost in a landslide. Tuesday, he drew just 3,176 votes but won in a landslide.
That occurred because the number of votes cast for a Republican candidate in the district plummeted 81 percent, falling from 10,988 in November to 2,081 this time around.
In the Tulsa-based House District 75, a repeat Democratic candidate similarly lost last year but won in a special election earlier this year. Once again, the number of votes cast for the Republican candidate plunged, falling 87 percent from 7,626 votes in November to 977 this year.
Special election turnout is always much lower than general election turnout, particularly after a presidential race. But that doesn’t explain why the decline in Republican votes was so steep and greater than the decline among Democratic votes. Democratic candidates have won not by convincing previous Republican voters to switch party allegiance, but by simply turning out their hard-core supporters.
Why are so many GOP-supporting voters staying home? One obvious explanation is corruption. Since 2015, five Republican lawmakers have resigned in disgrace for offenses that have included embezzlement and child prostitution. The fifth resigned on the day of the Norman election after being charged with sexual battery.
Questions of competence also abound. This year, Republican lawmakers approved a multibillion-dollar budget in House committee, shortly before midnight, without any lawmaker having time to read the bill and without contextual fiscal information to inform their vote. A tax measure passed by the Legislature was soon struck down as unconstitutional.
Continuing budget shortfalls and Republican lawmakers’ responses may have also dampened voter enthusiasm. Some argue that if Republicans only raise taxes and increase government spending, voters will reward them. Perhaps, but a poll conducted this year by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates found 65 percent of voters believed the primary response to the state’s shortfall should be to cut government spending.
Republican lawmakers did the opposite, advancing no cost-saving measures of any note, but proposing more than $1 billion in tax increases. Is it unreasonable to think some conservative voters concluded there’s little reason to elect a Republican over a Democrat because the policy outcomes will be similar?
The Republican-controlled Legislature must purge itself of corrupt lawmakers, demonstrate basic capability and ensure its members are ideologically in tune with constituents. If not, the problem of stay-athome GOP voters could expand beyond special elections to the 2018 general election.