Urban-rural divide on display in Oklahoma’s primary election

Hand cleaner for voters after voting at precinct 61 in Edmond, Tuesday, June 30, 2020.

Mauree Turner is a living example of the growing diversity of big cities.

The 27-year-old gay, Black, Muslim woman knocked off a three-term, white male incumbent to win the Democratic nomination for a state legislative seat. People like her have won elections in liberal states on the east and west coasts, but until Tuesday, it had never happened in conservative Oklahoma.

Turner’s race in Oklahoma City in the state’s primary election illustrates a growing political dynamic that now rivals in importance the well known divide between red states and blue states. That’s the gap between urban and rural areas almost everywhere.

Even in a state that considers itself the reddest of the red, cities like Oklahoma City, with a population of 650,000, are giving Democrats a real chance of winning office for the first time in years. Like other urban areas, Oklahoma City has gotten younger and more ethnically diverse. The city elected its first Democratic member of Congress in decades in 2018.

Meanwhile, the election showed the increasingly hard right tack of rural areas, even in races where self interest might seem to dictate otherwise. The biggest item on the Oklahoma ballot was a proposal to expand the Medicaid health insurance program, and for months the directors of small town hospitals have implored rural voters to support it to save many financially ailing clinics from closing.

The Medicaid measure passed, but only because of strong support in urban and suburban areas around Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Seventy of the state’s 77 counties, all rural, rejected the proposal, which anti-tax groups had criticized as government overreach and too expensive.

“The irony is the fact that the 217,000 people who are going to get health care out of this deal are disproportionately in the rural areas that voted against it,” said Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma. In some rural counties with struggling hospitals, opposition to Medicaid expansion exceeded 70%.

Not many years ago, the political divisions in Oklahoma were different. The two largest cities were solid Republican strongholds, dominated by corporate executives and other pro-business conservatives. And many Democrats were still elected in small towns. Now, the picture has changed as the parties have changed. The Republican Party has become more aligned with working-class white voters in rural areas, while Democrats are stronger among the young, the ethnically diverse and the better educated in the urban areas.

Republican political consultant and pollster Pat McFerron jokes that how an Oklahoma county votes now depends on whether it has a Tractor Supply Company or a Lululemon.

Rural voters identify themselves as Republican regardless of the issue.

“People pick which side they’re on,” said McFerron. “They say, ‘I’m a Republican who supports Kevin Stitt, so I’m going to vote no.’ Politics is a team sport, and that’s kind of what happens here.” Stitt, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, had opposed the proposal, citing the cost.

The urban/rural split was also reflected in whether voters went to the polls or voted by mail. The Oklahoma Medicaid vote was the first statewide election in the nation since the controversy over mail voting escalated, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump’s attacks on using the mail.

In the vote, Democrats were almost twice as likely to cast absentee ballots as Republicans. President Donald Trump has said, without offering evidence, that it will lead to voter fraud.

The overwhelming power of the gun rights issue with rural voters was also demonstrated in the election.

A conservative Republican, state Sen. Wayne Shaw, from the town of Grove, population 6,600, lost his seat after angering a gun rights group that pushed him to give a hearing to several gun bills they supported.

Don Spencer, director of the Oklahoma 2nd Amendment Association, said he organized a rally in Shaw’s hometown attended by more than 200 people.

“It was a real grassroots effort,” Spencer said. “People just want their rights protected, and they don’t want somebody in the way, and that’s what (Shaw) was.” Instead, Shaw’s opponent, Blake Cowboy Stephens, won the GOP primary with more than 60% of the vote.

In Oklahoma City, Turner will become the first Muslim elected to office in Oklahoma if she defeats a Republican in November in a district where Democrats have a two-to-one advantage. She attributed her victory to connecting with the underrepresented people in her district.

“They want someone with a history of fighting for communities and building that deep community power that lies outside the Legislature,” said Turner, a community organizer who spearheads a criminal justice initiative for the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The big thing about this campaign was people saw themselves in it.”

She also isn’t worried about facing resistance in the conservative Oklahoma Legislature, where Republicans enjoy super-majorities in both chambers.

“Growing up as a black, Muslim woman in the Bible Belt of America has prepared me for that,” Turner said. “I’m in the business of changing hearts and minds, and that’s the only business I want to be in at the end of the day.”

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