Oklahoma County’s history of Republican voting is near unprecedented for somewhere so urban. Since 1952, only once (1964) has the county supported a Democrat running for president. The area had not been represented by a Democrat in Congress since 1975. But starting in 2016, that all changed.
Elections Daily has already covered many shifting suburban districts around the country, and OK-05 follows a similar pattern. Trump’s unpopularity with college educated voters has been just enough to push Democrats to competitiveness in an area where that was once a pipe dream. In 2018, they finally broke through with Kendra Horn, a little known lawyer and former campaign manager for Joe Dorman, the 2014 Democratic Gubernatorial nominee. Widely considered one of the biggest upsets of 2018, the question now becomes if Horn can win re-election.
Like many suburban districts across the country, the prospect of a Democrat representing OK-05 prior to the rise of Donald Trump was unthinkable. When the GOP drew the congressional map after 2010, it would have been hard to draw a district centered around the city that was not safe Republican. In fact, according to 538’s Atlas of Redistricting, the only way to draw a district in Oklahoma that would have leaned Democratic based on the 2012 and 2016 presidential results would have been to connect Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Romney won Oklahoma County by 17%, and the addition of two rural counties to the east (Pottawatomie and Seminole) simply put the district even further out of reach. But starting with the presidential primaries in 2016, there were signs of a change. Oklahoma County, which casts well over 80% of the district’s votes, went for Rubio and Clinton. This was as Sanders, Cruz, and Trump all dominated their respective primaries. In the fall, these signs came to fruition. Donald Trump won the district by 13%, a healthy margin, but reduced from Romney’s 19%. The district remained more GOP-friendly down ballot however, as Senator James Lankford carried it by nearly 29% in his re-election bid (he represented the district from 2011-2015).
Horn’s announcement, in sharp contrast to some Democrats in districts just as red, received largely only local attention. She was running an uphill battle, without a flashy fundraising video or major name recognition. But as it turns out, a local and low-key campaign may have been a blessing in disguise. The race was never nationalized and it was overshadowed by the competitive gubernatorial race as well. Horn did receive a late injection of advertising cash from Michael Bloomberg, but race handicappers still rated it as Likely Republican. A poll released on Halloween of 2018 had Russell up nearly 12%.
When the results came in, political observers were stunned. Incumbent Steve Russell was uncontroversial and had an impressive electoral record, but nonetheless fell victim to the blue wave. While the top of the ticket was disappointing for Democrats, Horn won 50.7%-49.3%. This was as Drew Edmondson, the Democratic nominee for governor, carried the district 53.9%-43.7%. Maps of the 2018 races are below.
While Horn’s underperformance of the top of the ticket may look worrying, it is actually quite impressive. House candidates in Oklahoma underran Edmondson virtually everywhere. Horn’s roughly 8% underperformance was the best of all 5. Below are statewide precinct maps showing both the gubernatorial race and the House races, as well as the comparison between the two.
As can be seen, Horn’s performance relative to Edmondson was actually respectable compared to other Dems. However, there is still much to be cautious about. Trump did win the district by 13%, so even if Horn went from underperforming the top of the ticket to running even with it, she would almost certainly lose. And by a sizable margin. She needs Biden to do substantially better than Clinton and she needs to hope her incumbency status helps her to outrun that margin.
But as with all races, Horn’s ability to do that is going to depend heavily on her opponent. The GOP primary is a three way race right now, with State Senator Stephanie Bice as the frontrunner. Bice brings with her much of what the GOP feels it has been lacking in suburban districts since 2016. Bice is a woman, only 46 years old, touts her government experience, and represents a district based in suburban and exurban Oklahoma City. She was added to the NRCC’s “Young Guns” Program in 2019, signalling her status as the establishment’s preferred candidate. She is also clearly the most capable fundraiser in the race – raising hundreds of thousands from individual contributors. Below shows how her senate district voted in a few recent elections.
Her district saw a huge shift between the 2016 Presidential race and the 2018 Gubernatorial election. These are the exact types of areas Horn needs to keep the margins close in. Having a candidate from one of those places would be a boon to the GOP.
But the primary is far from decided this far out. Former State Superintendent Jannet Barresi entered the race in October 2019 and lent herself $500,000 to jumpstart her campaign. She has emphasized her background in oil and gas as well as her commitment to her family. However, her previous statewide stint ended in her being defeated in the GOP primary, and she has proved a remarkably poor fundraiser. In addition to Barresi, businesswoman Terri Nesse is making a play for the seat. The GOP nominee for Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma in 1990, Nesse has stayed largely out of politics since then. She is running a campaign that ties her closely to Trump and touts her business experience. Her website even autoplays an ad attacking impeachment when it is first opened. But her fundraising has lagged. Like Barresi, she has lent herself hundreds of thousands of dollars, but has only raised about ⅓ of what Bice has raised.
If Bice does not win outright in the first round of voting, she should still be a fairly clear favorite in a hypothetical runoff. This is essentially the nightmare scenario for Horn and Democrats. Given that Horn underan the top of the ticket by 8% last time, it is already hard to see her reversing this to a double digit overperformance, as she would likely need to do to be re-elected. This becomes an even more difficult task if Bice is the nominee. Oklahoma City is gradually diversifying and its suburbs are gradually becoming bluer. However, it’s not moving left at the rate Horn would need it to be in order to feel confident. Even reading the situation as generously as possible for Democrats would put this race as a toss-up.
Of course, Horn is not doomed. It’s possible that Bice falters on the campaign trail. It’s possible COVID-19 and the prominence of the presidential election prevent Bice from raising her name recognition or fundraising adequately. It’s possible Biden does much better in suburban areas like Oklahoma County than many expect. But none of those things is particularly likely to happen, and the underlying numbers are very grim for Horn. It looks more likely than not that Horn, pushed into Congress by the wave, will be carried out by the tide.