Seeing Red in Oklahoma?

NPR ran a piece this weekend in which host Scott Simon called Oklahoma "the most Republican state in the Union" and then asked ...
by | December 11, 2008

NPR ran a piece this weekend in which host Scott Simon called Oklahoma "the most Republican state in the Union" and then asked his guest, an Oklahoma political scientist, what lessons the G.O.P could learn from the party's success in Oklahoma.

I wouldn't have picked Oklahoma for that title, but I can see why NPR opted for Oklahoma. While by most measures Utah, Wyoming and Idaho are more Republican than Oklahoma, the Sooner State, unlike those other three, clearly is becoming more Republican over time.

John McCain won Oklahoma 65.6% to 34.4%, slightly besting President Bush's 2004 performance. Republicans just won control of the state Senate. They won the state House of Representatives a few years earlier. Both of Oklahoma's U.S. senators and four of its five members of the U.S. House are Republicans.

But, if Oklahoma is one of the best examples of a state where Republicans are ascendant, that only proves a point that's very different from what NPR intended: That grouping states into red and blue might make sense from the standpoint of presidential politics, but usually oversimplifies state and local politics.

Oklahoma's governor is Brad Henry, a Democrat.

Oklahoma's independently elected lieutenant governor is Jari Askins, a Democrat.

Oklahoma's attorney general is Drew Edmondson, a Democrat.

The state auditor, state treasurer, commissioner of labor, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction? They're all Democrats too.

In fact, the only statewide offices that Republicans hold besides the U.S. senators are on the state corporation commission. One reason that Democrats still maintain such strength in Oklahoma is that the state actually has more registered Democrats than Republicans -- 1,079,373 Democrats to 859,872 Republicans as of November.

All of this might just sound like more bad news for Republicans. Even in a state that can plausibly (if not persuasively) be called the most Republican in the country, there are lots of Democrats holding key offices.

The thing is, though, there are nearly as many signs of Republican strength in Democratic states. Obama won Vermont with 67% of the vote, making it his second best state. But Republican Jim Douglas easily was reelected governor. The independently elected Republican lieutenant governor won too. Obama's best state was Hawaii, where Linda Lingle, the Republican governor, took 63% of the vote in 2006.

These aren't aberrations. Of the 20 states that Obama won by 10 percentage points or more, 7 have Republican governors. Of the 15 states that McCain won by 10 points or more, 7 have Democratic governors.

For all of these reasons, I tend to get irritated when experts look only at presidential voting, then talk about how divided the country is. There are lots of ways to slice and dice divisions. Perhaps cities are divided from rural areas. Perhaps liberals are divided from conservatives.

But, the most conventional way to describe the country as polarized is to talk about partisanship (not ideology) at the state level -- that there are red states and blue states. If those labels only hold for federal politics, not state politics, are they really evidence of a polarized nation?

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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