may not be in play for the presidential candidates this year, but
in a state where an anti-cockfighting initiative may have helped
fuel a surprise Democratic victory in the 2002 gubernatorial election,
Democrats are hoping to wrest the seat previously held by retiring
GOP Sen. Don Nickles.
the geographical middle of the United States, Oklahoma has voted
for the Republican presidential candidate since the 1950s. In
the last 14 years, only one Democrat, the current governor, Brad
Henry, has won a statewide race.
tensions used to divide the state by party, with Republicans centered
in the more business-oriented cities and Democratic family traditions
holding sway in the rural areas. However, in the last few years,
Republicans have made inroads in the rural and suburbanizing town
counties, "in no small part due to cultural issues that divide
the national parties," says University of Oklahoma Political
Science Professor Keith Gaddie.
are consistently conservative on social issues, and Democrats
often run "I am more conservative than my opponent"
campaigns. According to Wilson Research Strategies, 55 percent
of Oklahomans are self-identified conservatives and only about
10 percent are self-proclaimed liberals. Oklahoma also has a strong
populist tradition: in 1992, Ross Perot took 24 percent of the
the 2002 governor's contest suggests that Democrats can win statewide
races when Republicans line up against the rural position on issues
of local culture. In that race, the presumptive governor-designate
for the GOP, Steve Largent, was undone, in part, by a get-out-the-vote
effort to oppose a cock-fighting ban. The ban won by a 2-1 margin
in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, but energized rural voters in the
southern part of the state who headed to the polls in record numbers
to keep their traditional pastime intact. The ban passed, but
political analysts say increased turnout in heavily Democratic
areas helped elect Democrat Brad Henry by a 6,866 vote margin.
endorsed the Republican school consolidation plan, which threatened
a key element of local identity in rural towns where Friday night
is football night and sports heroes are treated like royalty.
the other key to understanding Oklahoman politics. A variety of
pollsters find that as many as 70 percent of Oklahomans report
attending church at least once a week. The influence of the churches
cannot be underestimated, according Gaddie, who says the evangelical
movement's get-out-the-vote effort have solidified GOP dominance
in statewide elections since 1994.
demographics vary from the more multi-cultural Republican populations
in the eastern urban centers to the poorer, traditionally Democratic,
sections in the south and the plains and rural communities of
Even its arguably
most cosmopolitan city, Tulsa, which takes pride in its ethnic
variety, skyscrapers and innovative business culture, remains
socially and politically conservative. The area around Tulsa,
known as Green Country because of its rolling hills and hundreds
of man-made lakes, has become more suburban and popular with retirees.
The corresponding rise in affluence has made those counties more
To the west,
Oklahoma City took center stage in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh blew
up the federal building, killing 168 people. The severity of the
attack was unprecedented in American history and the nation watched
as Oklahomans honored their dead and rebuilt their lives with
the spiritual steadiness of the Great Plains.
was part of a dramatic cycle of despair and recovery that continues
to this day.
of the first residents were the Five Civilized Tribes driven west
from Georgia and Alabama by Andrew Jackson's forces in the 1830
Trail of Tears. The American Indians settled in the eastern part
of the state, where today almost one in four people report their
race as American Indian. Then came white settlers in a great land
grab memorialized in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. After
oil was discovered in 1897, speculators flocked to the state,
creating the boom town of Tulsa.
a state in 1907, and a prosperous culture of farmers, ranchers
and oilmen flourished until the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which
sucked up the soil necessary for productive farming. Desperate
farmers and migrant workers -- so-called Okies -- headed for California
in search of greener pastures, a journey made famous by John Steinbeck's
"Grapes of Wrath."
created its own cycle of boom and bust, and the price spikes of
1973 and 1979 enriched the state, increasing the population from
2.5 million in 1970 to 3.3 million in 1983, according to the Almanac
of American Politics. However, the collapse in oil prices ravaged
the economy, with oil rigs dropping from 882 in 1982 to 232 in
1983. The 1990 Census reported 3.1 million people, a population
drop that stirred the government to try to diversify the economy
with tax breaks for any businesses located on current or "former"
Indian reservation land -- nearly the entire state.
Due to the
close proximity of settlers and Indians, many Oklahomans are proud
of their mixed heritage, including a candidate in this year's
race for the U.S. Senate. Oklahoma has the second-largest American
Indian population after California, with 273,000, according to
the 2000 Census. Assimilation and acceptance have incorporated
native traditions in every day life, including the Cherokee, Choctaw,
Chickasaw and Seminole languages: many of the street signs in
Tahlequah, once the Cherokee capital, are in Cherokee and English.
section of the state, known as Little Dixie, was settled by white
Southerners -- many of the counties are named after parts of Mississippi.
Voters in Little Dixie are traditionally Democratic, but culturally
part of the state is home to farmers who battle scorching summer
heat and freezing winter cold. The residents are divided politically
north from south, with Republican families coming into the northern
part of the state from Kansas and more traditionally Democratic
families coming into the southern sections from Texas. While the
mostly white population in the west has been diminishing, there
has been an increasing number of Hispanics arriving to work in
hog farms and meatpacking plants.
for the Online NewsHour by Leah