Officials in the Oklahoma Republican Party are still in denial about the September loss of a perpetually GOP-held seat in a special election for House District 85. At recent county and state GOP meetings, I heard the often-repeated mantras that the Democrat “outworked” the Republican, that more “liberals” are moving into the district, and that the Carter campaign thought they could just cruise to victory in this “safe” seat. They either don’t see, or don’t want to address, the real issue, the elephant in the living room.
My perspective on HD 85 is unique. I ran for the seat twice, once losing as an Independent in 1976, and again winning as a Reagan Republican in 1982. I received 63% of the vote in a district with a majority of registered Democrats. I’ve kept a watchful eye on that district since. Subsequent GOP Reps in that seat were Mike Hunter, Mary Fallin, Odelia and David Dank. All did a good job representing their district.
So what happened? Is it really so simple that Cyndi Munson, an energetic, personable liberal Democrat just “outworked”political veteran and insider, conservative Republican Chip Carter?
Let’s look at some facts.
HD 85 Voter Registration:
R – 12,159 50%
D – 8,870 37%
I – 2,920 13%
2014 Munson vs. Dank General Election:
Munson (D) – 5,135 – 43.7%
Dank (R) – 6,635 – 56.3%
2015 Republican HD 85 primary:
Carter 1,027 – 37%
Crawford 806 – 29%
Jackson 536 – 19%
Palumbo 400 – 15%
2015 Munson vs Carter Special Election:
Munson (D) – 2,656 – 54%
Carter (R) – 2,272 – 46%
2015 Munson vs Carter Composition of Voters by Party Affiliation:
2,674 – Republicans
2,029 – Democrats
225 – Independents
4,928 – Total
What conclusions can we draw?
1. By party registration, this should be a safe GOP seat. It has been Republican for at least 50 years.
2. In 2014, Dank won with 56%, well over the 50% Republican registration. He was unopposed in 2012, won with 58% in 2010 and 55% in 2008.
3. In 2015, if ALL Carter’s general election votes were Republicans, then 402 of Munson’s votes were Republicans. A minimum of 15% of the Republicans voted Democrat.
4. There was a significant drop off in Republican voters from the primary to the general election, with 497 fewer primary-voting Republicans bothering to vote. Since Carter probably got some Democrat and Independent votes, there were even more Republicans who voted Democrat.
5. So, many Republicans who voted in the primary, either chose NOT to vote in the general, or they crossed over and voted for the Democrat. That is the elephant in the living room. The question is: Why?
As a rule, Oklahoma Republicans have to have good reasons to vote for a Democrat, especially in the “reddest of the red states.” What might those reasons be?
Munson is apparently a personable, hard worker. She was able to concentrate her efforts on converting Republican and Independent votes, while doing the basics to secure her Democrat base. She received almost 44% of the vote just six months prior to filing. But that doesn’t explain the crossover. In normal times, Carter should have been able to secure the Republican base and concentrate on winning over conservative Democrats and Independents, as all previous Republican candidates have done. But that didn’t happen. Why?
The truth is that the Republican crossover vote was less a vote FOR Munson and more a vote AGAINST Carter, and what he represented in the minds of the crossover voters. It was a vote against politics as usual by the Republicans.
The Carter campaign seemed to be state-of-the-art for a well-financed Oklahoma campaign. Ethics Commission reports show the Carter campaign spent $189,000 to Munson’s $107,000. Beyond that, at least four “dark money” groups, directly or loosely affiliated with the State Chamber, spent over $73,000 in the primary for Carter. I don’t have reports for after June 30, so the figure was likely much higher to finish the primary, and then the general. Nor do we necessarily know all the dark money groups involved. I have no dark money figures for Munson.
I’ve seen more than 20 mailings, door hangers and push cards for Carter, as well as large ads in the Oklahoman and Friday newspaper. Most have the mandatory photos with family and constituents, with lots of conservative catch phrases and buzz words. Carter also picked up unprecedented primary endorsements from Governor Fallin and Senator Inhofe, as well as by Senator Lankford, Congressman Russell and Mayor Cornett in the general. But the tried and true formula failed.
What turned the tide against Carter was the negative campaigning in the last ten days before the primary. Post cards, flyers, robo-calls and whispers on the doorstep slandered Ralph Crawford and tried to portray him as an Obama-supporting, budget-busting union goon. This was a deliberate misrepresentation of who Ralph Crawford is. At least one negative postcard came from the Carter campaign, while several others came from dark money groups. Indications were that Carter was trailing Crawford before his campaign went to the gutter, creating fear and doubt in the minds of enough voters to get some Crawford voters to switch or stay home.
We also heard reports of a whisper campaign slandering Crawford’s wife, Laura, a two-time Teacher of the Year, in two different school districts. The slander was that she received that prestigious recognition because she was in the teachers’ union. The truth is that she had never been a union member, contrary to most Oklahoma teachers.
While “going negative” is politics as usual, in this case, hundreds of people who knew, trusted and voted for Ralph Crawford, took it personally and supported Munson as a protest vote. I’ve heard many stories of people who were so offended, they chased Carter off their door steps while he campaigned. Many even had Munson signs in their yards, replacing the Crawford signs that were there just weeks before. Munson took full advantage of Carter’s negative campaigning. (Crawford did nothing to add fuel to the fire. He didn’t have to.)
My speculation is that protest votes were also fueled by a combination of disgust with politics as usual and disappointment with the GOP at both the state and local levels. At home, we have a GOP-dominated legislature whose results seem little different from the Democrats who controlled the state so long. Nationally, 62% of Republicans are upset with their own party, helping to account for the Trump phenomenon. Voting for a Democrat is a good way for a Republican to cast a protest vote.
It is worth noting that the reason many qualified men and women choose NOT to run for public office is the treatment that Ralph and Laura Crawford got. Most people are reluctant to subject themselves to the rigors of campaigning, especially when they can expect members of their own party to tear them down rather than run on their own merits. As a result, people more inclined to be politicians rather than principled statesmen run and are elected. Special interests contribute tens of thousands of dollars and expect a return on their investment.
In conclusion, Oklahoma GOP leadership is publicly in denial about the loss of HD 85. The elephant in the living room is numerical: at least 402 Republicans voted Democrat in the general election; moreover, 497 Republicans who voted in the primary stayed home for the general, the opposite of normal behavior. Those are the numbers that need to be explained. Protest votes against the Carter campaign specifically, and the GOP more broadly, is the best explanation.
In my next article, I’ll discuss what the GOP can do to fix this problem, as well as to come together to move Oklahoma forward to a better future.
Disclaimer: I’ve never met or talked with Chip Carter or Cyndi Munson. I met Ralph Crawford in the last few weeks of his primary campaign and have become a good friend. So I have had access to information not otherwise available.