Oklahoma Is Doing Pretty OK, Actually

As a wonderfully menacing Christmas card sent out by the Oklahoma GOP last month reminded us, Oklahoma was the only state in the Union to go completely and utterly red: Not one county–and only one of the state’s 2249 precincts–voted for the Obama/Biden ticket in November. (“It was god, guns, and gays with a little bit of race thrown in there,” a local Democrat quipped bitterly.) And yet, two months later, a crowd of 800 Oklahomans merrily rang in the Obama presidency on Sunday night at the Museum of the American Indian. A sense of marvelous good luck (for some) and of smirking at the gods (for others) permeated a crowd that had as many Native Americans as ten-gallon hats and bright blonde coiffures. Tribal chiefs and Air Force ROTC high schoolers mingled with state representatives, local business people, and young couples around piles of jalapeƱo corn bread and chicken pot pie. One Oklahoma architect, bopping his head towards the merry crowd, snipped, “These are all the people that voted for Obama in Oklahoma. That’s it. They’re all here.”

One of those voters was a reluctant one: Oklahoma’s lone Democratic congressman Dan Boren, a vocal board member of the NRA and scourge of environmentalists. In July, he made news for refusing to endorse Obama because of his “liberal Illinois voting record,” before finally coming around. “I had reservations about him,” he told me as a soft jazz band inexplicably sent strains of “Georgia on My Mind” up to the rotunda’s ceiling. “But the President-elect’s early moves have signaled that he isn’t going to govern from the left, that he won’t govern as an ideologue, that he’s going to give tax cuts to small businesses, and that he won’t try to stifle growth. So we’re very hopeful.”

The state’s other professional Democrats were, for the most part, Obama-backers from Edwards’s departure and got behind him to the best of their hobbled abilities. Dr. Ivan Holmes, the state’s Democratic Party Chair, recalled how Obama called him to say that he would not be coming to the state and that Holmes was not to spend a dime on his campaign after initial polling suggested that Obama could only scrape together 35 percent of the vote. (He ended up with 34.) But the state party did as much as it could: State Representative Anastasia Pittman beamed with pride as she recalled how many voters her team had registered: 2,000. Holmes, in spite of the party nominee’s diktat, disbursed $50,000 to buy 50,000 lawn signs.

This was like shaking a fist at a rain cloud, however, and the November returns were devastating. “I completely understand why Obama didn’t spend any resources here,” Democratic governor Brad Henry told me. “It’s a waste of time.” But when their candidate pulled through because of the other 28 states in the win column, Oklahoma Democrats’ relief was tinged with more than a little embarrassment. Many whispered of an undercurrent of racism in the rural areas. Linda Edmondson, the wife of the state attorney general who plans to run for governor in two years, said some of her friends held firm to the belief that Utah was actually the reddest state. “It’s pretty depressing,” she said. Holmes, the otherwise feet-on-the-ground state party chair, repeated a similarly soothing, if inaccurate, factoid: “I think there were three states that were actually redder, percentage-wise,” he insisted over a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries. “I can’t recall which ones, but I’m pretty sure there were three that were worse.”

But the mood was so infectiously happy–the rotunda was still packed when the security guards threatened to lock the doors on a crowd that wouldn’t go home until it had shouted through the entirety of “Oklahoma,” a capella–that even the few Republicans in the crowd seemed to be warming to the changing of the guard. Everyone was simply trying to make the best of a situation that hadn’t gone anyone’s way: Oklahoma Democrats hadn’t delivered the state for their candidate, and the others hadn’t gotten their candidate at all. And though the most stalwart Republican members of Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation were in absentia (most had timed their returns to D.C. for the last minute before the inauguration; others, like Senator James Inhofe, promised to come, but, held up by mysterious delays, never showed), the ones that were there wouldn’t badmouth the incoming president. “It was a fair election and nobody’s sulking,” Representative Tom Cole told me later, echoing the mood of his constituents back home. “It’s clearly an exceptional moment for the Democrats, and it’s preeminently their celebration. We’re just pleased to be invited.”

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