1994 Was a Year of Change in Oklahoma Politics

Editor at Large

In a year when the Republicans seem like they may take forever in selecting a presidential nominee and uncertainty rules the political landscape, Jenk Jones Jr. takes the long-range view. As one of the state’s most noted political historians who had at various times in his career with The Tulsa Tribune covered the Capitol buildings in both Oklahoma City and Washington, D.C., Jones has followed a number of quirky elections.

In a recent meeting of the Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture, headed by former Tulsa Mayor Rodger Randle, Jones said that no race he has covered beat 1994 in the state’s political fortunes.

It started out, Jones noted, as a fairly tranquil year. The nation was at peace, the Soviet Union was in tatters, and Oklahoma, as usual, had a preponderance of Democrats in the Oklahoma legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. Oklahoma had six representatives in those years (the state lost one following the 2000 census) and the Democrats had four of them. That followed a historical trend.

For decades, Oklahoma was the playground of the Democratic Party. They seized the controls at statehood and, with the exception of 1920 when the carried the state for president for the first time, and a brief surge in 1928, it captured a majority of the U.S. congressional delegation and state legislature seats. Things got so one-sided that by 1937 the Republicans were shut out of the Washington delegation, the State Senate and had only three seats in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

The first indication things might be changing came early in the year when Glenn English, who had served 10 terms as a Democrat serving the conservative north and west Oklahoma Sixth District, announced he was resigning in mid-term. Both the Democratic and Republican primaries to replace him were lightly attended. But in the May general election over 130,000 voters turned the seat over to the Republican camp; now the House and Senate seats were evenly split, a first in Oklahoma history.

This was quickly followed by an unusual election in Oklahoma’s eastern Second District. For eight terms Mike Synar, a personable Democrat well to the left of his constituents but still widely liked, ran against two elderly conservatives in the primary. Neither Virgil Cooper nor Bill Vardeman was well known, but the anybody-but-Synar mood of the district had grown so that the two split just enough of the vote to keep Synar from winning the nomination in the primary. Cooper nosed out Vardeman and the next day Vardeman threw his support to Cooper. In the runoff, the combination held and Cooper upset Synar, only to be beaten in turn by Republican Tom Coburn in November, the first Republican win in that district in 74 years.

Meanwhile the game of musical chairs continued when Sen. David Boren, growing increasingly disenchanted with the leftward drift of the national Democratic Party, announced he was going to leave office to become president of the University of Oklahoma. That left the last two years of his term open and two sitting representatives, Democrat Dave McCurdy of the Fourth District and Republican Jim Inhofe of the First District, vying for the empty seat. Inhofe won! Now two House seats were vacant and football came to play a huge role in who would fill them. In the Fourth District, David Perryman was the Democratic candidate and J.C. Watts was the Republican. Perryman was well known but Watts was not only the first African-American to win a statewide election in Oklahoma (Corporation Commission) but he had been an award-winning quarterback for the University of Oklahoma, which was situated in the heart of the Fourth District. Watts won.

Meanwhile in the First District, another gridiron hero, Steve Largent who had been a star at the University of Tulsa before setting pass-catching records in the National Football League for the Seattle Seahawks, easily picked up Inhofe’s old seat. The split in the U.S. House of Representatives had gone from 5-3 Democrat to 7-1 Republican. Football also played a part in the gubernatorial race. The incumbent, David Walters, had a host of legal problems so former OU quarterback Jack Mildren, serving as lieutenant governor at the time, got the Democratic nod. He faced Republican Frank Keating but there were no fourth quarter heroics; Mildren was beaten by 170,000 votes.

In addition, Mary Fallin became first woman and first Republican lieutenant governor that year. That triggered a career that would make her the second congresswoman and first woman governor from Oklahoma.

The Republican tide wasn’t confined to Oklahoma. For the first time since 1952, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives, although in Oklahoma Democrats continued to do well, holding a roughly 2-1 margin in the state Senate and 3-1 in the state House. Both margins were doomed to disappear in future elections.

Where is the state trending today? Jones, who loves statistics, notes that 50 years ago statewide there were nearly 712,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Now, the gap is 115,000. Independents have grown from 4,600 to a whopping 224,000 plus.

From 1994 on, Republican fortunes have improved in once solidly Democratic Oklahoma.

What does Jones think will happen in 2012? He’ll do what he always does; he’ll wait and see. But it may be a fascinating year.

Updated 03-26-2012

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