OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Republicans like to boast that their state is the reddest of the red, with their party holding every statewide elected office and every one of the state’s seats in Congress.
Democrats hoping to chip away at the Republican stranglehold have pinned their hopes on Anna Langthorn, a 24-year-old woman who has logged more than five years in the political trenches.
While acknowledging her age may raise eyebrows, the newly elected chairwoman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party hopes it will also help her to fan a growing enthusiasm in the state, especially among other young people, to shake up Oklahoma’s political system.
“There are a lot, a lot of voters who just aren’t voting because they haven’t been engaged, and a lot of those are young people,” she said from her bustling new office in Oklahoma City. “If we can present them with a party organization that reflects their values but also has a face they can relate to, they’re more likely to be engaged.”
Oklahoma went hard for Republican Donald Trump in November, to no one’s surprise. But Langthorn said she’s seen a dramatic increase in the number of young people showing up to local and state Democratic Party organizational meetings since Trump took office.
“All of those were tripled in attendance across the state,” she said. “We’ve had counties in western Oklahoma, in rural Oklahoma, that have not been active in the last decade, in some cases 20 years, that for the first time this year had people showing up who wanted to participate.”
In a special election for an open House seat last month in rural central Oklahoma, the Democratic candidate lost by about 2 percentage points in the same district a Republican won in November by 33 points.
Langthorn is among a growing number of millennials who have been tapped to lead state parties in recent years, including 28-year-olds William McCurdy II in Nevada and Kylie Oversen in North Dakota.
While North Dakota Democrats suffered major losses in 2016, including Oversen’s own state House seat, a growing dissatisfaction with Trump and an enthusiasm among younger voters could shift things dramatically for Democrats in 2018, said Ken Martin, leader of the Democratic Party in Minnesota and the president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs.
“We have seen young people in the past serve in these positions, but what I am seeing right now is just a wholesale new energy throughout the country,” Martin said.
Less than 45 percent of U.S. voters ages 18 to 34 cast ballots in November’s election. That figure was even lower in Oklahoma, where less than one-third of registered voters in that age group voted, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Those are voters that Langthorn hopes to engage.
Langthorn has her work cut out for her, especially healing a rift that deepened during last year’s Democratic presidential primary election between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. While acknowledging the division, Langthorn said she believes she’s the right person to help bridge the two factions.
“My hope is that I can marry those two groups in who I am as a person, that I do have very progressive values and beliefs and want to move the party in that direction, but I also recognize that there are people who have given 30, 40 and even 50 years of their life to serving this party, and their contributions and wisdom are still valuable,” she said.