Sometimes effort isn't enough.
Sometimes effort isn't enough.
I have never lost anything due to a lack of effort, but one of my most devastating losses was in a runoff election. I wasn't the candidate, but I think it might have hurt less if I had been. I felt like I let a friend and mentor down.
It was 1992. Beth Reigh was one of my high school teachers. She asked me to do her a favor. With everything she had done to help me in high school to find scholarships and opportunities to get college credit for the work I was doing, it was the least I could do. She also helped me qualify my project for the State Science Fair. She was the kind of teacher schools need more of.
In 1992, Reigh was running for State Senate and I was a political science and economics double major at Oklahoma State University. I had one year of college left.
She gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. She asked me to run her campaign. I was a registered Republican, but she knew that since she was the one who actually helped me register to vote.
I switched parties so I could run her campaign without it looking weird. In reality, at the time, many Oklahoma Democrats were more conservative than Republicans from other states, so I wasn't a bad fit in the party.
I was working for free, but she couldn't have paid for someone to do more. We built a huge volunteer base. We covered the parts of five counties that made up District 23 at the time. Even though we were outspent, we won the primary with 4,380 votes out of 10,795. Bruce Price came in second with 3,510 votes.
That sent us to a runoff. Unfortunately for our candidate, I learned a lot of tough lessons during that brief period between the primary and the runoff. Those lessons came at her expense.
Since we have several runoffs underway in the area, I thought maybe I could share some insights that could help so people don't spend the next 25 years of their lives wondering what life would have been like if you could have won a couple dozen more votes.
After winning the primary, somehow our volunteers became less excited instead of more. Obviously, vacations and summer schedules made some people less available. Even I had issues because the runoff was hitting so close to the beginning of my senior year of college. I didn't work any less, but I know I wasn't as effective as I should have been because my energies were spread too thin.
Combine an inexperienced campaign manager, a volunteer base that dissolved, a dwindling campaign account and a goofy editorial from the Daily Oklahoman talking about how my candidate was controlled by the AFL-CIO and OEA, and things went sideways quickly.
Like I mentioned, we were outspent 3 to 1 but because the AFL-CIO donated about $900 in yard signs to our campaign, the Daily Oklahoman Editorial Board used that as a reason to support our opponent. The Daily Oklahoman was fighting to bust every union in the state, so even a small donation from one put you on their bad side.
In addition to finding ways to keep your campaign going when big donors and volunteers lose interest, candidates in runoffs need to know that turnout will be down - probably way down. In this state senate race in 1992, more than 20 percent of the voters from the primary sat out the runoff.
Runoff voters tend to be more polarized because they are the voters who still care enough to vote.
In 2016, most runoffs saw a decline in turnout of 25 to 33 percent depending on the election. Several districts saw several thousand fewer voters in August than they had seen in June.
In 2018, that drop off could be even bigger. The medical marijuana vote brought out a lot of first-time and infrequent voters. It isn't likely that they will return to the polls for the runoff in August. I would expect it to have a big impact in Shawnee's District 26 House of Representatives runoff for the Democratic candidates. Bruce Bushong and Terry Hopkins will have to work hard to keep their vote totals from June. In the Republican Gubernatorial runoff, Kevin Stitt and Mick Cornett will see a huge drop off in turnout. Those rural voters who supported Todd Lamb will have a big say as the two candidates likely swap wins in each other's backyards. Stitt won the Tulsa metro area. Cornett won in and around Oklahoma City.
Something tells me the 50 or so more rural counties will determine who the winner is in August.
That played out for us on a small scale back in 1992. We won our county. Price won his county. The small pieces of the other three counties determined the winner. Unfortunately, after a recount, we still lost by 20 votes 4,235 to 4,215. We actually received fewer votes in the runoff than we did in the primary.
Don't think for a second I didn't blame myself. I was 21. I didn't know what to do when the volunteers took it for granted that Reigh would win the runoff after winning the primary. I wasn't good enough to keep the fire burning in between June and August. I certainly wasn't a good enough fund raiser to keep the coffers full.
I was so nervous on election night in June and as the results rolled in, we saw the positive effects of all the work we had done. In August, the opposite was true. We took a lead in early results and watched it shrink until it disappeared.
It was the ultimate punch in the gut. I wish my inexperience would have cost me more than it did my friend and mentor. But she went on to be an incredibly successful educator and high school principal. She made more money and had less junk to deal with in the long run.
But she would have been a great state senator. District 23 really missed out.
I went on to work as the editor of the newspaper in my hometown and got to know Price really well over the next decade of his service. He was a good man and a good state senator, too.
I guess everything worked out for the best, but you couldn't have convinced me of that on that Tuesday night in August in 1992. That was a hard pill to swallow.
Runoff elections are hard to predict and hard to win. I hope the candidates who are still in the fight have better luck than I did 26 years ago.