Although not competitive on most – if not all – levels, Oklahoma has helped shape American politics through some of the most tumultuous chapters of our history and it continues to remain relevant.
Early History – The Trail of Tears
The Spaniards were the first Europeans to explore Oklahoma in the mid-1500s in search of fabled gold cities. The territory would rotate between Spanish and French control before eventually being sold to the United States via the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The French established trading relationships with some of the native tribes of the area. The U.S. government had envisioned Oklahoma to be a reservation for eastern Native American tribes, and in 1820, Oklahoma was called “Indian Territory.”
One of the first brutal acts of the U.S. government was that of the Indian Removal Act. Expedited by President Andrew Jackson (D-TN), the act allowed the president to negotiate treaties with the tribes of the Southeast. Met with resistance, and even warfare, from the tribes, the military evicted almost 100,000 natives by 1840. The near-thirty-year removal process became known as the Trail of Tears. The tribes were promised land that accounts for nearly all of present-day Oklahoma, but as the government auctioned land and allowed development to settlers and railroads, more of the reservation became eroded. The eastern half of the state became the new Indian Territory, while the western half became the Oklahoma Territory.
Five tribes were dubbed the “Five Civilized Tribes:” the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. The tribes assimilated to European ways of life, even including owning slaves. The Civil War was even more detrimental to the removed tribes, as Oklahoma was wedged between conquests for Arkansas and Texas. Natives held some 8,400 slaves in their territory, and many sought refuge in the South after the end of the war. Confederacy-allied tribes were forced into Reconstruction treaties that ceded most of the Indian Territory to the federal government, allowed railroad construction in the Indian lands, and outlawed slavery.
In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison (R-IN) signed legislation that allowed the so-called “Unassigned Lands” within Oklahoma to be open for settlement, starting the first of many land runs that would balloon Oklahoma’s population. Some settlers staked claims in the area before the land was officially opened for settlement, giving them the name “Sooners.”
Twentieth Century Politics – An Epic Rise and Fall
In 1902, the Five Tribes proposed their own state of Seqouyah. The Sequoyah constitution was rejected by Washington, but instead used as a basis for the Oklahoma Enabling Act. On November 16, 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt (R-NY) signed Oklahoma into law as the forty-sixth state. The state grew by nearly one million people from statehood to 1930. Farmland and oil were the main attractors, allowing Oklahoma to enter the Union with more electoral college votes – seven – than any other state at admission, besides the original Thirteen Colonies and Maine.
Although the Dust Bowl was detrimental to nearly twenty states in the 1930s, Oklahoma was perhaps the most severely affected. Massive amounts of settlement and farming and cattle ranching, lack of crop rotations aligned with different growing seasons, and the surge in demand and price of food during World War I, the land was cultivated far more than it could handle. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl swept away effectively any prosperity settlers hoped to attain at the turn of the century. Displaced farmers, called “Okies,” headed to California for new opportunities, inspiring John Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath.
The devastation experienced by farmers would allow for Franklin Roosevelt’s (D-NY) New Deal program to appeal specifically to Oklahoma. This combined with its ancestral Democratic ties to the Solid South would start Oklahoma off as a blue state.
Oklahoma first participated in the 1908 election, giving its seven votes to William Jennings Bryan (D-NE) by a relatively thin margin. Woodrow Wilson (D-NJ) would win the state handily in both of his 1912 and 1916 elections, only for it to turn sharply to Warren Harding (R-OH) in 1920. Here, Oklahoma’s unique political allegiances were on display, as hostility towards Wilson allowed six GOP Congressman to be elected and Harding to become the first Republican to carry Oklahoma. The 1920 election marked the breaking of the Solid South, with Oklahoma and Tennessee backing the GOP.
The KKK also wielded considerable power at the time, mostly in the southeastern part of the state, known as “Little Dixie,” which was highly aligned with Southern values. This allowed John Davis (D-WV) to flip the state in 1924, but the state at-large rejected Catholic Al Smith (D-NY) in 1928.
FDR’s New Deal doctrine allowed him to become the only Democrat to carry all seventy-seven of Oklahoma’s counties, and his margin of 73% is still the best Democratic performance in the state to date. Unlike other Plains State, Oklahoma stayed with FDR through all four of his elections and with Harry Truman (D-MO) in 1948. The intrinsic Southern ideals of the state, coupled with Native American influence, and leftover support for FDR helped solidify Oklahoma as a Democratic state through the 1940s.
However, in 1952, Oklahoma’s political allegiances would be redefined. On a very literal north-south divide, Dwight Eisenhower (R-KS) was able to win the state comfortably in both of his 1952 and 1956 elections. Drifting of the agricultural and energy sectors to the GOP allowed Republicans to carry Oklahoma in every election since 1952, with the exception of 1964.
The mid-20th Century is also a time when Oklahoma had outweighed political influence in Washington. With Speaker Carl Albert hailing from the Sooner State, as well as influential Senator Robert Kerr, Oklahoma Democrats practically ran Congress. On the state level, State Senator Gene Stipe was almost the state Democratic Party incarnate. A fierce representative for his Little Dixie constituents, Stipe was as loved as he was unscrupulous. His decades-long reign in Oklahoma City came to an end in 2003 on corruption charges. That, coupled with the social leftward shift of the national Democratic Party and the term limitation of state representatives, helped turn Oklahoma’s fundamental voting bloc staunchly Republican by the 2000s.
Geography – The Sooner State
- Tulsa Metro – One of the nation’s most Republican cities; last voted Democratic in 1936. Known for the Tulsa Race Massacre and is one of the top economic powerhouses of the central U.S.
- OKC – Oklahoma City, the state capital, a red-leaning area that has become more evenly divided in recent years due to increased young voters in the area. The state capitol building is also the only state capital with an oil well directly underneath it.
- Little Dixie – The southeastern part of the state; ancestrally aligned with the Democratic Solid South and remained blue until the 2000s and 2010s.
- Western Oklahoma – Home to much of the agriculture and oil in the state, as well as smaller cities and the Panhandle; staunchly Republican.
Current Political Leanings – An Island of Blue in a Sea of Red
In 2022, Oklahoma ranked third nationally in terms of wind energy production, fifth for natural gas, and sixth for crude oil. Agriculture and biosciences are also chief industries that compose Oklahoma’s economic profile.
Socially, the state is one of the most religious and conservative, contributing to compounding margins for the GOP in each election since 2000. Al Gore (D-TN) is the last Democrat to have won a single county from Oklahoma, and Donald Trump’s (R-FL) 2020 win marked the fifth consecutive time the GOP has swept every county.
The GOP currently holds both U.S. Senate seats. Democrats last held a Senate seat in 1994 and last held both simultaneously in 1969.
The governor’s office, however, paints a different picture. Since 1900, only six governors have been of the Republican Party, with the most recent elections under fairly close margins due to political and ideological divides under a “big tent” party in the state. Brad Henry (D) is the last Democrat to be elected governor of Oklahoma, first elected in 2002 and re-elected in a landslide in 2006.
Despite this, Oklahoma Democrats don’t seem to be finding much success outside of Oklahoma City. While the city council is officially nonpartisan, members are registered in a 6-3 advantage for the GOP. Oklahoma City is represented by Democrats in the state legislature, and Democrat Kendra Horn scored the biggest upset win of the 2018 midterms when she unseated Scott Russell (R), who had won by twenty points two years prior. Republican Stephanie Bice flipped the seat back in 2020, and in 2022, the lines were redrawn to be more favorable to the GOP.
Democrats are towing a careful line in OKC. Appealing to the more liberal urban core gives them a base to expand into the suburbs, something they seem to be doing well. They continue to take advantage of intraparty fighting in the solidly red state, with unpopular governors in Mary Fallin (R) (2011-2019) and Kevin Stitt (R) (2019-present) making their cases easier.
Still, Democrats have their work cut out for them in conservative, rural Oklahoma, and that shift does not appear to be materializing any time soon.