Strange Times

The Democrats’ Great Plains Firewall: Can Joe Dorman Take the Oklahoma Statehouse?

A new poll shows a Democrat within striking distance of Oklahoma’s incumbent governor. Will the die-hard red state turn Sooner blue?

Sue Ogrocki/AP

The Great Republican Wave is supposed to crest in the first weekend of November, knocking down senators, members of Congress, state lawmakers and governors from Florida to Alaska.

But some Democrats are hoping they have at last found a firewall in the unlikeliest of places: Oklahoma, a state that by reputation is as welcoming to Democrats as Saudi Arabia.

A poll out on Monday by Democratic polling firm Clarity Campaign Labs shows Democratic state lawmaker Joe Dorman trailing by just 2 percentage points to Republican incumbent Mary Fallin, with voters disapproving of the job Fallin is doing by a 46-42 margin. The poll found that Dorman suffers from low name recognition, but also that 8 percent of likely voters have not yet made a determination about whom to vote for.

“The result confirms that the Governor’s decline in support has continued unabated over the past several months, and shows no sign of changing course,” wrote pollster Tom Bonior in a memo released by the Dorman campaign. “It’s worth noting that this two percent margin is well within the margin of error of the survey, making this race a statistical dead heat. What’s more, history would suggest the Governor’s re-election prospects are dim—in the 2010 election only one incumbent standing for reelection with a two-way polling average below 50 percent went on to win.”

The poll comes as the 2014 election cycle shapes up to be one of the strangest in years, with Republicans preparing to make statehouse gains in dark blue Democratic states like Massachusetts, Illinois and Hawaii. Democrats meanwhile seem to be building some kind of Great Plains firewall, with competitive statewide races not just in Oklahoma but in neighboring Texas and Kansas as well.

“The mainstream Democratic Party has forgotten us,” says Trav Robertson, executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party. “And it just goes to show you—Oklahoma is an extremely young state. It is an independent state that has trended Republican because, frankly, Democrats have not run good campaigns, and sometimes that is extremely hard to admit to yourself.”

Oklahoma Democrats say that is not the case with Dorman, who has run an aggressive campaign that has put distance between him and the national Democratic Party and President Obama, who sports an approval rating below 30 percent in the state. In one ad, Dorman touts his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and the spot ends with him standing in front of a church.

“He is a rural good ol’ boy from Rush Springs with 300,000 miles on his truck,” says Keith Gaddie, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. “He is probably the last of the breed of rural Democrats who are passing from the scene.”

National Democrats do not seem to be taking notice, but Washington Republicans are: the Republican Governors Association poured $200,000 into the race to bolster Fallin, calling Dorman “Liberal Joe” and tying him to President Obama’s unpopular health care law.

Dorman joked to a reporter that, trailing in the money race by about five-to-one, he appreciated the attention that the RGA was giving him and in the wake of the release of the favorable poll, slammed Fallin, tying her to the unpopular Congress, where Fallin served two terms before running for governor.

“Historically, an incumbent with such low numbers at this point does not win,” says Dorman. “We have worked tirelessly throughout this campaign to get to know the issues that are facing Oklahomans while Fallin has spent more time thinking about her Washington, D.C., cronies.”

Publicly, Republicans say they are not worried, pointing to another series of polls which show Fallin with a lead by as much as 15 points.

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“I don’t put much stock in that [poll],” says Mike McCarville, a longtime Republican pundit, “given Obama’s lack of popularity, and Dorman’s registration as a Democrat. He is a conservative Democrat, but he is still a Democrat and I don’t think that will be enough to beat Mary Fallin.”

Fallin has received high marks for her leadership after a tornado devastated the town of Moore. But she has been slammed for initially embracing Obamacare, and only reversing position due to a heavy lobbying effort by conservative political groups. That “almost Mitt Romney-like reputation for flip-flopping,” as Gaddie calls it, grew further after Fallin initially embraced the Common Core education standards.

Fallin reversed course on that as well, but not before a mini-revolt grew among suburban parents. Fallin faced a primary with two unknown, Libertarian-leaning challengers—one of whom campaigned on the slogan “God, Grass and Guns”—but who were still able to combine for a little more than 25 percent of the vote. In June, state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi—a one-time Fallin ally—badly lost re-election in her own primary, coming in third place with 21 percent of the vote.

“This Common Core thing really rattled the governor and she never really recovered it,” says Gaddie.

Since those early stumbles, Fallin has painted herself as one of the most conservative governors in the nation, as critics say she attempts to position herself as a possible running mate for a Republican presidential candidate in 2016. She has attempted to eliminate the state’s income taxes, paying for it with the largest cut in education funding in the country. She has quashed the efforts of municipalities to raise their own minimum wage. She has presided over the highest number of executions per capita as any state in the country, even though an execution earlier this year went tragically awry, embarrassing state officials. Fallin has tried to institute some of the most restrictive reproductive health laws in the country, and when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel moved to grant benefits to National Guard members in same-sex marriages, the governor refused.

Democrats say that the state has been ignored for so long, that it will be difficult for them to put together the infrastructure or raise the money to actually defeat a sitting governor. But they do think that the next five weeks can get very interesting.

“If that poll is even half true, than Mary Fallin is in trouble,” says Robertson. “Election Day is just like football, and on any given Saturday anything can happen.”