Democrats scored two surprising electoral wins on Tuesday night by flipping statehouse seats in one of the more unlikely locations: Oklahoma.
Michael Brooks-Jimenez, a local immigration attorney, was elected as a new state senator for District 44, an area that encompasses southwest Oklahoma City. And in Tulsa’s House District 75, Karen Gaddis, a retired school teacher, won a seat that had been in Republican clutches for over two decades.
The wins were owed, in part, to scandal that has beset the Republican Party in Oklahoma, where a number of state officials have been forced to resign because of sexual harassment claims and, in one instance, child prostitution allegations. Additionally, an ongoing budget crisis, which has led to four-day weeks at many Oklahoma schools, has spurred dissatisfaction with Republican leadership.
But the victories also underscore a growing backlash against the GOP that has elevated Democrats in various contests across the country.
The senate seat won by Brooks-Jimenez had been held by Ralph Shortey who resigned this year due to child prostitution allegations. Similarly, representative Dan Kirby, who held the Tulsa House seat, resigned following an investigation into sexual harassment claims made by a previous assistant.
Despite that context, Anna Langthorn, the newly elected chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that both wins were pleasantly unexpected.
“I will say that when you’re in Oklahoma and we win, it’s always somewhat of a surprise,” she said. “You prepare yourself for any result.”
Langthorn said that while both Democratic candidates were uniquely tailored to win in their specific districts, they also benefited from the public’s souring on the state’s conservative political bend. Brooks-Jimenez’s district has the largest Hispanic population in the state, she said, making him an appealing choice given his work in the community as an immigration attorney and his ability to connect with voters in both Spanish and English. As for Gaddis, Langthorn said that the state’s budget crisis -- and specifically its effects on education, paring down many five-day school weeks to four -- paved the way for the victory.
Though Democrats have failed to flip a single congressional seat in the series of national special elections that have taken place since Donald Trump’s victory in November, they have made conspicuous gains both there and on the state level. Of the 29 special elections that have taken place, four seats (all of them state-based) have been flipped from Republican to Democrat. None have gone in the opposite direction. Those contests have seen an average voter swing of 11 percentage points towards Democratic candidates compared to the 2016 cycle, according to data compiled by the liberal website Daily Kos.
Langthorn was reluctant to chalk up Tuesday’s wins to national politics, only conceding that it “helped us more than it hurt us."
Gaddis' campaign manager, Sarah Baker, agreed with that assessment while also acknowledging that the victory came as a surprise.
"I've seen a number of stories since last night trying to make that connection [to national politics] but what we heard while knocking doors and talking to voters across the district never gave me that impression," Gaddis told The Daily Beast. "Very few people made mention of Trump and instead talked about what was going on in our own state. They talked about how voting for the Republican in this race was just going to give us more of the same in Oklahoma."
But Carolyn Fiddler, a former top official with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee who recently joined Kos as political editor and senior communications advisor, told The Daily Beast that Democrats were in a unique position to win statewide due to a combination of national resentment with the Republican Party and local backlash to conservative governance.
“These successes are not a complete shock in light of the overall trend of strong Democratic performances in special elections this cycle, but they're certainly a surprise, considering [the] conservative nature of Oklahoma's electorate generally and in these districts specifically,” Fiddler said. “These Democratic pickups are two more data points in a growing set indicating nationwide Democratic electoral strength and enthusiasm this cycle.”