Henry Bellmon was elected Oklahoma’s first Republican governor in 1962 by, among other things, convincing voters that two-party rule was more efficient and effective than the overwhelming Democratic majorities that had run Oklahoma for most of its first 55 years.
Close to another 55 years have passed, and now the situation is almost exactly reversed. Republicans will hold 112 of 149 seats in the Legislature that begins a week from Monday, plus every elected statewide office and the entire congressional delegation.
And good luck to the Democrat who tries to make the two-party argument.
A Tulsa World analysis of voting behavior and other factors ranks Oklahoma the second-most conservative state in the nation after Utah. The Legislature convening Feb. 2 will be among the most Republican in the nation.
Some would argue that the shift in party affiliation has more to do with the parties themselves than the attitudes of Oklahoma voters. And that is true to an extent. But it has also signaled a fundamental shift in the state’s power structure.
In broad terms, the populist Democrats who wrote Oklahoma’s constitution and controlled the levers of state government were a party of farmers, coal miners, shop owners and factory workers who saw restraint of big business as a legitimate function of the state.
The rise of the Republican Party has brought a shift to more business-oriented policies: workers comp and lawsuit reform, reductions in income-tax rates, right to work, weakened regulatory agencies and a push for privatization of everything from education to elevator inspections.
Republicans have not quite achieved the ascendancy reached by Oklahoma Democrats during the Great Depression and the decades that followed, but they could soon. Further gains in the state Senate, where the GOP already has a 40-7 advantage, seem likely in 2016. In the House, Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold their 29-seat minority.
One might think that means Republicans can run the state however they want. And theoretically they can — but only to the extent that they agree among themselves.
A political axiom that holds, regardless of party, is that the larger the majority, the more difficult it is to keep it together. This was demonstrated last session when a faction of Republican legislators forced Gov. Mary Fallin to retreat on some education initiatives.
The Democrats — the minority party — stood back, watched (and sometimes encouraged) the fissures develop, and then stepped in when they could tip the balance in a direction to their liking. We can expect more of the same this year.
In that basic respect, Oklahoma’s shift from blue to red has not changed things much.
“We weren’t much in number,” said former state Sen. Denzil Garrison, one of four Republicans elected to the Oklahoma Senate in 1960, “but we were just enough to make a difference.”
“A lot of people think it’s Democrat versus Republican,” said former Democratic Gov. George Nigh, who was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1950. “All the time I was in politics, it was rural versus urban.”
And that split continues to manifest itself on issues ranging from water rights to education, despite waning rural strength in the Legislature.
Surprisingly, Nigh and Garrison cited the election of 1958 as a watershed of party politics in Oklahoma. That year, Tulsa County attorney J. Howard Edmondson, a Democrat, won the governorship by promising to dismantle many of the legislative perks that had enabled Democrats to enforce party discipline.
“Howard Edmondson ran on the Republicans’ platform,” Garrison said.
“His campaign issue was that he was going to throw out the ‘Old Guard,’ ” said Nigh, who was elected lieutenant governor that year. “The Old Guard was Democrats. They were not Republicans. Edmondson didn’t run against the Republicans. He ran against other Democrats.”
By custom, Oklahoma’s Democratic governors had chosen the party’s House and Senate leadership, but in 1960 the House revolted against Edmondson’s reforms and elected a speaker of its own choosing, J.D. McCarty of Oklahoma City. The House and Senate have chosen their own leadership ever since.
Another important development now largely forgotten was the 1964 court-ordered reapportionment of the Legislature.
“I would say reapportionment was the basis of Oklahoma becoming a two-party state,” Garrison said.
At that time, legislators in Oklahoma and many other states were elected by county. By the 1960s, this had caused huge disparities in the number of constituents each legislator represented.
This system tended to under-represent urban areas such as Tulsa and Oklahoma counties. Not incidentally, it also made the election of black legislators virtually impossible. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legislators must be elected according to the “one-man, one-vote” principle — that is, by districts evenly apportioned according to population.
Reapportionment, and subsequent growth of the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metropolitan areas, weakened the Democrats’ rural, populist base — which was, in any event, beginning to fade from the scene.
Lee Paden, a Tulsa attorney and former Bellmon aide, said Bellmon’s election and the opening of Oklahomans’ minds to the Republican Party “was really based on a belief that government needed to change, to modernize. There was a desire on the part of the electorate to embrace change.”
It is often said that Oklahoma voters have not changed so much as the two parties have. As the Democratic Party shifted to the left nationally, conservative Oklahomans increasingly identified with a more conservative Republican Party that has bound itself to the Christian-right and patriotism.
Paden, though, said while most Oklahomans have always been what might be described as conservative, they haven’t always been the same kind of conservative.
“Little Dixie conservative was different than Bartlesville conservative,” he said. “Oklahoma City was different than Tulsa.”
He said he thinks the biggest change in Oklahoma politics — and in national politics in general — is the intractable positions of the two parties.
“In some instances, it’s gotten so vitriolic that people can’t even talk to each other,” he said.