By Ron Jenkins
Sunday, November 9, 2008
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Despite Barack Obama's dominance nationally, Democrats are reeling in conservative Oklahoma, where John McCain made his strongest showing and the GOP snatched control of both houses of the Legislature for the first time in state history.
McCain got 65.6 percent of the vote in Oklahoma, the highest state percentage for him in the country, even though Democrats hold an edge in voter registration by about 300,000.
The senator from Arizona swept all 77 counties, repeating President Bush's feat four years ago against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). No Democrat has won a presidential race here since Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide in 1964.
Although McCain was considered more moderate than the conservative Bush, he did better than the president did in 2004 in rural areas of Oklahoma, where social conservatism is dominant.
His best performance was in the "Little Dixie" region of southeastern Oklahoma, which is heavily Democratic but most often votes Republican in presidential years.
McCain pulled in 70 percent of the vote to Obama's 30 percent in five Little Dixie counties: McCurtain, Choctaw, Latimer, Pushmataha and LeFlore. Bush got 56 percent in those counties in 2004.
That region is where Sen. James M. Inhofe (R), who easily won reelection this year, said his "guns, God and gays" strategy was born, in 1994 at a cafe in Hugo. That strategy emphasizes protecting Second Amendment rights to own guns, stressing his Christianity and opposing expansion of rights for gay people.
State Democratic Chairman Ivan Holmes said race was "probably a factor" in some rural areas after folks became frightened by false information that Obama "was a Muslim who would take away their guns."
"People really believed that. It reminded me of when I was a youngster. I was brought up in the Baptist Church, and I was taught that if John Kennedy was elected president, the pope would be running the government," Holmes said.
Exit polls found that more than half of Oklahoma voters identified themselves as white, evangelical or born-again Christians. Of those, a heavy majority went for McCain.
State Republican Chairman Gary Jones said it was "not so much an issue of race," but rather of conservative Oklahomans voting against someone known as "the most liberal member of the Senate."
Jones said the conservative positions of McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, helped motivate Oklahoma voters.
"Oklahoma voters loved Palin," and they respected McCain as a former prisoner of war, said Keith Gaddie, University of Oklahoma political science professor.
He said another factor working for McCain was that the state economy is in good shape, compared with that of much of the rest of the country that went for Obama. The oil and gas industry has been strong here in recent years.
Democrats had hoped to pick up a half-dozen seats in the Oklahoma House while at least holding their own in the state Senate, which had 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans.
Instead, Republicans picked up four House seats to raise their majority to 61 to 40 and gained two state Senate posts to take a 26 to 22 edge.
Inhofe was reelected to the Senate with 57 percent of the vote.
Holmes said Democrats overall were hurt by the millions of dollars Inhofe spent on television ads pairing his opponent, state Sen. Andrew Rice, and Obama and calling them "too liberal for Oklahoma."
He said Democrats did not have the money to counteract those commercials as well as ads run by incumbent GOP members of Congress, who faced little-known Democrats. Republican hold four of five House seats and both Senate positions.
Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, who endorsed Obama, said he was disappointed by the election outcome but not surprised, based on the state's track record in presidential elections.