November 6, 2017 at 6:46 PM
NORMAN, Okla. — The newest state legislator in Oklahoma leaned over his bathroom sink, teasing his tousled hair to get that John F. Kennedy bouffant. The blue suit came from J.C. Penney and fit snugly; the tie was tied tight.
"My hair keeps standing up because I'm already sweating so much," said Jacob Rosecrants, a 39-year-old single father. "When you go campaigning, no one expects you to look like this. But when you win, everyone expects you to look like this."
A month before, he was a middle school geography teacher driving a Chrysler PT Cruiser with no air conditioning, knocking on doors at the end of a hot Oklahoma summer. Now, he is the poster boy for a national party desperate to rebuild its bench.
Rosecrants is a Democrat who won in a district that is 60 percent Republican. He is one of three Democrats who have won GOP legislative districts in Oklahoma special elections in the months since President Trump won 65 percent of the vote in one of the country's most conservative states.
National Democratic Party leaders have rejoiced over these victories — along with five other recent wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida in districts that had voted for Trump — as evidence that the chaotic presidency may be creating opportunities for Democrats to capture more seats in next year's state and congressional elections. "A beacon of hope," said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party's strategy arm for legislative races.
Yet the path to victory still seems muddy. Internal party tensions have been on display in recent days before the release of an explosive tell-all book by former chairwoman Donna Brazile, and polls have tightened ahead of Tuesday's nationally watched gubernatorial election in Virginia, where the Democrat has waged a largely anti-Trump campaign.
In Oklahoma, success didn't come when candidates simply rejected Trump. These candidates won after embracing elements of his playbook, capitalizing on the widespread distrust of traditional politics to persuade voters to give newcomers a chance.
Rosecrants, like Trump, pitched himself as an anti-politician, an outsider who could shake up an old-boy institution filled with backslapping, privilege and corruption. As Oklahoma struggles to fund public services and records some of the worst education statistics in the country, Rosecrants used his career experience to illustrate how he could help solve the state's biggest crisis.
"Elect a Teacher" was his slogan, and the blue signs he staked in people's lawns in the Oklahoma City suburbs had a pencil in the logo. He knocked on doors and told of his overcrowded classroom of 42, so sweaty they called it the "rhino's butt," and how other teachers have cleared out closets to find space to educate special-needs students.
It wasn't until you read the fine print that you could tell Rosecrants was, in fact, a Democrat.
For some voters, backing Trump in 2016 and then supporting a Democratic state House candidate was perfectly logical. "I voted for Trump because he's an outsider, and I voted for Jacob because he's an outsider," said Sean Keith, 34, a sales manager who lives in Rosecrants's district. "Maybe they'll get the job done."
During President Barack Obama's term, conservatives successfully captured voter dissatisfaction, with Democrats losing more than 900 state legislative seats over those eight years.
Oklahoma typifies the GOP domination. Even after this year's special elections, Republicans have 39 of 48 seats in the Senate and 71 of 101 in the House. The governor is a Republican, as well.
But the majority party is drawing scrutiny in the state as it navigates budget problems and political scandal.
In 2014, the state reduced taxes on oil and gas production — the main source of government revenue — from 7 percent to 2 percent in hopes of attracting more companies to drill. The timing wasn't great. Oil and gas prices were going down and fewer companies wanted to drill, Democrats and Republicans said, resulting in less money coming into state coffers.
Going into the 2017 budget season, the state was estimated to be short $868 million. The legislature is still in a special session because lawmakers can't agree on how to balance the budget. And the results were showing, in Rosecrants's suburb of Norman and the nearby country town of Noble.
Chunks of a local bridge fell off when a truck zoomed under it, because the bridge was so old. Road improvement projects along the main street were delayed because there wasn't enough money to finish them. Potholes went untended because the state couldn't hire enough workers to fill them quickly.
The chief concern among voters was education. Per-student funding in Oklahoma had decreased by 26 percent since 2008, faster than in any other state, and teacher pay ranked among the nation's lowest. One out of five counties were so cash-strapped, they reduced instruction to four days a week. Teachers hadn't received raises since the Great Recession.
So grave was the concern about education that close to two dozen teachers ran for the legislature in 2016, almost all of them Democrats. But Trump's coattails proved too much for the Democrats to overcome, and only one of the teachers won that year.
Greg Treat (R), the state Senate majority leader, said those results are more indicative of the national mood than recent Democratic wins in special elections — particularly given the circumstances that led to those victories. Among them: One state senator was found in a hotel room with drugs and an underage sex worker; a state representative was accused of sexually harassing legislative aides.
Treat called the scandals "inexcusable" but added that "we live in a fallen world with sinful men and women, regardless of what profession."
Still, Treat noted, enthusiasm for Trump remains high. At the state fair, minutes away from the Capitol, the county Republican Party's booth in the event hall bustled as fair-goers posed with cardboard cutouts of Trump and first lady Melania Trump, and glad-handed with gubernatorial candidates. A man in a tie-dyed shirt walked up to one of the candidates, Gary Jones, and asked, "Where are the Democrats?" Tucked in a smaller, quieter section on the other side of the hall, the booth was so hidden from view that Jones couldn't find it.
Considering the scandals, local Democrats made a larger, more philosophical argument about the nature of man and power. The scandals were about more than just Republicans behaving badly, said Karen Gaddis, a retired teacher from Tulsa who won one of the special elections.
When a single party has all the power, she said, its members begin to think they are immune. And the system becomes corrupted.
"I heard a Republican legislator say, 'We have a mandate from the people,' and I thought, 'What people?' " Gaddis said. "I didn't even get a chance to vote because no Democrats even filed for any of the offices. We need voices."
Of the 2,100 votes cast, Gaddis beat her Republican opponent by 95 votes. One of the greatest moments of her life, she said, was attending her election night celebration, which she had called a "victory party" only because of her campaign's quixotic hope.
"I was going to go in and thank everybody and, you know, give this wonderful speech," Gaddis said. "And I walked in the room, and I just blurted out, 'We won!' And the room exploded."
The victory surprised Gaddis, but the party's leaders say it was a product of a fresh focus among them. Democrats here sought a new purpose after the 2016 elections and elected 24-year-old Anna Langthorn as the state's full-time party chairwoman. Langthorn said she was heartbroken after Hillary Clinton's loss. She said she thought about joining a militant protest group but wanted to try a more old-fashioned way of changing democracy.
"The Democratic Party moved away from its original purpose here," she said. "It became more of a social club than a place to strategize to win elections. We had to do it as a way to resist Trump."
Rosecrants emphasized that he was just a little guy trying to make a difference. He wasn't always an activist. His first foray into politics came when he attended a teacher rally outside the Capitol in 2014. There were more than 30,000 out that afternoon, he said, but they could not get an audience with the governor or arrange a meeting with any major GOP leaders.
There was one politician whom he did grow to admire, though. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who challenged Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, captured his attention by emphasizing the importance of small contributions to tackle big problems. "Wouldn't it be funny if we ran for office?" a friend of his joked. But Rosecrants did not think he was joking.
No Democrat had won a House seat in the district since 1995, so Rosecrants started a Facebook page and began fundraising. He got fellow supporters of the Sanders campaign to knock on doors and spread his message. He thought he got a sign from the political gods when he received his first contribution.
"Twenty-seven dollars," he recalled, an homage to the average contribution to the Sanders campaign.
He was one of the teachers who ran in 2016 and lost to the incumbent, by 20 percentage points. When the incumbent quit the job, Rosecrants began going door to door again. The day before his September election, Rosecrants said, he and his team knocked on 2,432 doors.
"I started believing in myself and started believing that we had a real chance," he said.
One of those doors belonged to Keith, the 34-year-old from Noble. In a community where many longtime residents know one another, he considered Rosecrants a friend.
Keith said he found Democrats on the national level to be out of touch — more concerned about schools being named after Confederate soldiers than the children within those halls. He didn't believe in special treatment, and he wondered why it was so hard for Republicans to raise the low taxes on oil and gas corporations while parents had to beg companies for private donations to supply their children with textbooks.
"The government understands what's happening, but I don't think they're working on it," Keith said. "People here just hated Obama. I wasn't a fan of him, either, but things were getting better when he left. There was so much division in the federal government, nothing could get done — and nothing can get done here, either."
He typically voted the party line, but Keith thought his state, much like his country, was at a crossroads.
So this time, he chose a Democrat. He's not sure he'd do so again.