Former lawmaker defeated rival to regain seat after switching parties
When Ken Luttrell last worked at the Capitol, he was a Democratic state representative from the Ponca City area in northern Oklahoma.
He is set to return to office in February — this time as a Republican after switching parties and defeating the political rival who had defeated him eight years ago.
“When I lost the election in 2010, we didn’t cry over it and we didn’t take it personal as votes against me. We were swept up in the anti-Obama fever and actually lost the election because of straight-party voting. People just went in and voted against Obama and pulled the Republican straight-party vote,” he said. “They didn’t choose Steve Vaughan over me; they chose any Republicans over a Democrat.”
In time, Luttrell left the Democratic Party and set out to take back his seat. He beat Vaughan convincingly during the June 26 Republican primary with nearly 58 percent of the vote. He has no Democratic opponent in the general election.
Luttrell said he joined the GOP because it aligned more with what he thought was important.
“I began to feel like some of the Republican Party ideals were more in line with business growth, and that the Democrats were becoming more of the social issue party rather than concentrating on things that would move the state forward,” he said.
His political rival, Vaughan, disputes the claim that political winds during Obama’s first term in office cost Luttrell the election in 2010.
“If that was true, I wouldn’t have been there eight years later,” Vaughan said, adding that Luttrell could have waited one election cycle for the fervor to die down if that was the case. “It probably was the perfect storm as far as what was going on, but I think it was the right time for me to win.”
He also criticized the party switch and said he thinks Luttrell became a Republican to have a better shot at taking back the seat. Still, he acknowledged Oklahoma’s current antiincumbent mood played a part in the primary.
“Sometimes if you’re an alligator in the swamp, you get drained with them,” Vaughan said by phone while on a fishing trip in Missouri. “It’s a very honorable job. I was honored for eight years to be the representative and you know what, time goes on.”
Luttrell retired after 28 years as a manager at Walmart, then worked in economic development for the Kaw Nation for four years during his time out of office. He remains semiretired as he heads back to the Oklahoma State Capitol for what some lawmakers consider a full-time job of legislating and responding to constituent issues.
Luttrell said he heard very little feedback about his party shift. In fact, the district he represents is solidly Republican with nearly two thirds of registered voters belonging to the GOP as of January.
“What I said at public forums was that this campaign doesn’t change who I am, but it changes what I’ll be able to accomplish,” he said.
As a member of the majority party for the first time, Luttrell could have priority on committee assignments and leadership, along with a better chance his legislation will be heard both in committee and on the floor. He’ll also be privy to closeddoor caucus sessions where House GOP policy is formulated before it’s rolled out to the public.
Despite that newfound authority, Luttrell said he’ll remember what it’s like to be on the other side of the glass, and he’ll be the only Republican in the room who’s ever served in the minority.
Republicans have held a majority of seats in the House since 2004.
“I know what it’s like to serve in the minority. I know what it feels like, feeling they’re shut out and what their reactions are to that,” he said. “Of course, I’m going down there to be a problem solver and a consensus-builder, which is what I was able to do as a Democrat. I was able to work with Republicans and had some very close Republican friends.”
He said he’s excited to work on businessrelated topics and will shy away from being a one-issue representative, citing controversial abortion and gun debates that sometimes consume Oklahoma politics. Luttrell also criticized lawmakers for kicking the can down the road when it came to the state budget by moving money between agencies and forcing departments to raise fees to pay for operations.
During earlier elections this year, Republican voters ousted 11 sitting lawmakers in what some described as a rebuke for voting against a tax hike meant to fund a teacher pay raise. Vaughan was one of the few Republicans ousted who did vote for the tax increase on cigarettes, motor fuel and the production of oil and gas.
“I think they reached a day of reckoning that they had all postponed,” Luttrell said. “I think the people spoke loud and clear in the primary and primary runoffs that they’re not opposed to a tax increase if it’s needed to fund the core elements of state government and to give teachers a raise.”
I began to feel like some of the Republican Party ideals were more in line with business growth, and that the Democrats were becoming more of the social issue party rather than concentrating on things that would move the state forward.” Ken Luttrell