The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats see hope in Oklahoma special elections

Democrats picked up a state Senate seat in Oklahoma with Michael Brooks’s win in the special election on July 11. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
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The special election in Kansas didn’t go the way Democrats had hoped. Neither did the race in Montana. And neither, most expensively, did Jon Ossoff’s run for an open House seat in Georgia.

But Tuesday night, Democrats picked up two seats in Oklahoma, a once-blue state where the Obama years had reduced them to a rump party. It was the fourth pickup in a state legislative race this year,* the only electoral bright spots for a party that is lagging in fundraising and fighting localized battles over leadership and messaging. Michael Brooks, who’d lost a 2014 race for the state’s 44th Senate District, won it by 9 points on Tuesday; Karen Gaddis, who’d narrowly lost the 2016 race for the 75th District of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, took it by 5 points this time.

There was celebration on progressive social media as soon as the races were called. “Turns out Donald Trump was right about one thing during his campaign — ‘We’re going to win so much,’ ” wrote Daily Kos’s political editor, Carolyn Fiddler. “Except he probably didn’t mean Democrats winning and over-performing in a ton of special elections since his election.”

Each victory — and a run of closer-than-expected races — has occurred in a low-turnout environment. In 2014, when Brooks lost the Senate race, 10,482 ballots were cast. On Tuesday, just 3,619 ballots were cast. But while Democratic turnout fell by half, Republican turnout fell by around two-thirds.

The victories also did little to slice into what, by the end of the Obama years, had become a Republican supermajority. After Tuesday, just seven Democrats will sit in the 42-member state Senate. After the 2008 election — the first since 1972 in which the Democrats’ presidential candidate carried no Oklahoma county — Democrats held 22 seats. Many of the losses since then had come in rural districts. Tuesday’s gains came in the metro areas of Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The races marked the first wins for the party under Anna Langthorn, who got national attention for taking over the beleaguered Oklahoma Democrats two months ago — at age 24.

“Both of the races came out of Republicans resigning after sex scandals,” said Langthorn. “They didn’t do a lot of preparation, whereas we had candidates who’d run before and were willing to run again. We had a field organizer in each race, for $2,500 per month. There were campaign PACs that spent a little money. Clearly, it was worth it.”

*Democrats lost a seat in Louisiana when none of their candidates filed for a seat that had swung hard to the right.