Arguably the biggest Democratic stronghold in the state fell to Republicans in the gubernatorial race for the first time in state history.
According to unofficial results by the Oklahoma State Election Board, Republican Mary Fallin defeated Democrat Jari Askins by a 10-point margin in the Southeast. Fallin accrued 57,749 votes compared to the 47,281 residents who voted for Askins.
As editor of the Durant Daily Democrat, Matt Swearengin has produced several stories regarding the election for the southeast region. Swearengin said the majority of the voters were trying to defy the political establishment when they cast their ballots.
“I think it’s just an anti-incumbent kind of year,” he said.
Swearengin covered one of the hotly contested races for state Senate, where incumbent Democrat Jay Paul Gumm was ousted by Republican Josh Brecheen by a 12-point margin. Swearengin said the national issues - such as the deficit and national health care reform - trickled down to the local race.
“The National Democratic Party has gone more liberal,” he said. “Gumm went out of his way to prove he wasn’t a liberal.”
Brecheen said there is a Republican ascendency occurring in the Southeast, despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.
“The title has prevented us from winning in the Southeast,” Brecheen said. “We’ve got a great opportunity in the Southeast.”
However, Swearengin said the anti-incumbent sentiment was also felt in the Democratic Party. Nathan Williams defeated a well-known Durant mayor during the Democratic primary to represent House District 21, which includes Bryan County. Williams was then defeated by Republican Dustin Roberts in the general election by only 4 percent, making Roberts the first Republican to represent Bryan County.
Swearengin said because Democrats have always outnumbered Republicans, Democrats have generally received more media attention because of the contentious primaries.
“That’s starting to change,” he said.
Kenny Brown, professor of history and chair of the Department of History and Geography at the University of Central Oklahoma, said the Democratic stronghold of the Southeast could be traced back all the way to the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, when Republicans were loathed in the majority of the South.
“They became very loyally, solidly Democratic,” Brown said.
Brown said the Democrats were against big business, with most of the non-Indian population in the Southeast consisting of tenant farmers who worked the land for the Indians. Individuals could not purchase their own land in this region because it was still considered to be Indian Territory.
Individuals could purchase land in the central and northwestern parts of the state, where they tended to be friendlier toward business, thus more likely to adhere to the Republican Party. When the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention was initiated, the northern residents thought the Southeast may be Democratic.
“There was a hunch it would be Democratic,” Brown said. “But, they were surprised how Democratic they were.”
Even though the Southeast remained Democratic for nearly all of the twentieth century, Brown said “one of the key elements” that may have contributed to the downfall of the Democrats was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to Brown, those in the Democratic Party demonstrated to have “very strong anti-black” racial attitudes. Brown added that Democratic Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s decision to sign the act alienated Southern Democrats.
“This would hinder the Democratic Party for a generation,” he said.
The issue of states’ rights was one of the biggest objections to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Brown said Republican Pres. Richard Nixon used the issue to attempt to pick up votes in the Democratic South when he ran against Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
Kevin Phillips, a former Nixon campaign advisor, reiterated the issue during a 1970 New York Times interview, stating to the Republican Party that there was an opportunity to polarize the Southern voting bloc - referencing another act signed by Johnson that attempted to end discrimination toward black voters.
“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote, and they don’t need any more than that,” Phillips said in the interview. “But, Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.”
After this, Republicans would continue to campaign on states’ rights and slowly became more successful in the South.
“Interestingly, the Republicans gained more and more,” Brown said.
To this day, Republicans are still campaigning on states’ rights and fiscal conservatism. Brown said it will be interesting to see if these new Republican state legislators will help to create policies that their constituents will support.
“A lot of the vote was anger,” Brown said. “Can that be transformed into policies that people do like?”