OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Democrats, who have taken routine beatings from the GOP over the last decade, unexpectedly snatched two state legislative seats from Republicans in special elections this week and are now hoping to carry momentum into grabbing bigger prizes in 2018, including congressional seats and the governor's mansion.
Democratic candidates benefited from voter frustration over state budget problems and recent sex scandals that led GOP incumbents to resign.
"We've got a lot of energy right now," said Anna Langthorn, the Oklahoma Democratic Party's new 24-year-old leader. "I think it's a good sign for the remaining special elections and for 2018."
However, Republicans still hold a 3 to 1 advantage in legislative seats along with every statewide elected office, both U.S. Senate seats and all five U.S. House seats.
Tuesday night's Democratic victories happened in districts in Oklahoma City and Tulsa with a mix of urban and suburban precincts, the kind of places where Democrats have made pickups in recent years. The larger cities have increasing populations of minorities and young professionals, who are more likely to vote Democratic. The Hispanic population in Oklahoma County, where Oklahoma City is located, grew 13.5 percent from 2010 and 2015.
And in both districts, veteran Republicans resigned amid a scandal.
State Rep. Dan Kirby of the Tulsa area stepped down after two former legislative assistants accused him of sexual harassment. In Oklahoma City, Sen. Ralph Shortey faces three felony charges alleging he solicited a 17-year-old boy for sex.
Republican candidate Joe Griffin, who lost by 10 points to Democratic attorney Michael Brooks in the Oklahoma City race, said that while the scandals "certainly didn't help," more voters were aggravated by the state's constant budget problems after tax cuts approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature. Declining revenue led to reductions in school budgets over the last three years.
"There's great concern over our education system, and year after year, the Legislature has failed to tackle these issues," Griffin said.
In the race for the Tulsa seat held by Republicans since the 1980s, Democrat Karen Gaddis, a retired schoolteacher, built her campaign around supporting education and criticizing Republicans for mismanagement of state government. She won the race despite a 2-to-1 GOP advantage in registration.
Another factor in both contests was minuscule turnout. Gaddis won her race by fewer than 100 votes, while Brooks edged Griffin by 331 votes out of 3,600 votes cast.
Democratic candidates for governor in 2018 already are hammering on the budget and education issues as term-limited Republican Mary Fallin leaves office, and Democrats believe the congressional seat held by Republican Rep. Steve Russell in Oklahoma City could be within reach.
In other conservative states, such as Texas, Democrats now dominate congressional elections in the big cities.
But Pat McFerron, a Republican strategist and pollster, said that while the demographics in big cities are changing, Democrats are still at a disadvantage.
"In 12 or 15 years from now, maybe," McFerron said of flipping Russell's seat. "But not now."