How A 26-Year-Old Dem Flipped A GOP State Senate Seat In Deep-Red Oklahoma
Rantt’s Abigail Barker contributed to this article.
Led by a 25-year old state chairwoman, Democrats have been making waves and winning elections in one of America’s reddest states?—?Oklahoma.
In special elections in 2017, Democrats won four Oklahoma State Legislature seats that were previously held by Republicans.
The latest Oklahoma Democrat to win a seat in the state’s legislature is 26-year old Allison Ikley-Freeman. Ikley-Freeman, a lesbian, and advocate for the LGBTQ community, claimed an upset victory over Republican Brian O’Hara last November in Oklahoma Senate District 37. She won by just 31 votes and became the first openly LGBTQ individual elected to an office in Tulsa County.
SD-37 includes Tulsa, Jenks, Sand Springs, and Oakhurst. The seat was vacated by incumbent Republican Dan Newberry, who resigned to focus on a job promotion.
Newberry had previously won re-election in 2016 by nearly 16% over his Democratic opponent.
The next special election in Oklahoma is Tuesday, February 13 in Senate District 27, to fill a vacancy left by Republican State Senator Bryce Marlatt, who resigned after being accused of sexually assaulting an Uber driver.
Amber Jensen, the Democratic candidate in SD-27, will hope to pick up in 2018 right where Ikley-Freeman left off in 2017.
Congratulations to our new Senator-Elect, Allison Ikley-Freeman!
Read my interview with Ikley-Freeman below. It is lightly edited for clarity.
MR: You were the fourth pickup for Oklahoma Democrats in special elections in 2016. What do you think Oklahoma Democrats are doing right that maybe national Democrats weren’t in 2016?
Ikley-Freeman: Well I think the way that we ran campaigns in 2016 looks a lot different than how we ran campaigns in 2017, especially in Oklahoma. We really kind of refocused on the grassroots efforts, which originally started out with campaigns. We didn’t so much focus on buying this and that and sending mail and radio ads and stuff like that. Instead, we really focused on knocking on as many doors as we could and the fundraising that we did was really funding door knocking efforts. And anything we did that wasn’t door knocking oriented was making up for a lack of volunteers to knock on doors. Which I think is a really different mindset from what it has been in the past.
MR: In the 2016 election, I know the Republicans won your district by about 16%. So what changed on the ground? What were you seeing when you were campaigning in 2017 as opposed to what was going on before?
Ikley-Freeman: Yeah. Well, so I’ll say this: What I was seeing on the ground may not entirely be so much as relevant as to what happened in the polls because we didn’t really talk to Republican voters in the campaign unless they reached out to us. We targeted liberal seeking voters. We really?—?from the voters we were talking to?—?we just heard, “Oh thank God you’re a Democrat and you’re running.” That was kind of the consensus. [laughs] But at the polls, the message that was really sent was, “we’re just so glad to elect somebody who’s not a career politician.” And I say that because when you look at the precinct breakdown and compare it to the presidential election, in 2016 the split looks a whole lot like what happened in the presidential election. The precincts that went to Trump were the precincts that I got at about the same ratio. It’s almost like the same logic was applied in both elections.
“Every bit of time a volunteer has makes a difference.”
MR: You won by about 31 votes. And I know in Virginia we had a race the other day decided by?—?it was tied?—?and it was decided by pulling out names out of a hat. What do you think you winning by thirty-one votes says about the importance of talking to voters, knocking on doors, and just really getting out the vote?
Ikley-Freeman: I mean really it’s just a message that shows that every volunteer who shows up to help means something. Thirty-one votes. So the average volunteer going to knock doors will knock thirty doors in two hours. That’s not an uncommon thing, so every bit of time a volunteer has makes a difference.
MR: What are some of your main policy priorities for Senate District 37?
Ikley-Freeman: Really my priorities are just helping working Oklahomans struggle less. Here in Oklahoma, we’re having a really big budget crisis. We are on special session number two of the year and we’re struggling with just providing basic services that are highly needed, like outpatient community mental health, living for the disabled?—?stuff like that. People shouldn’t have to worry about having these very essential basic needs available to them.
“Utilizing empathy toward not just your constituents who are struggling, but toward the people that you’re working with and realizing where they’re coming from and trying to understand where they’re coming from.”
MR: Working on some of those issues and being in the minority party and a very significant minority?—?what’s your strategy to get things done working as a member of the minority party?
Ikley-Freeman: Well, I think it’s a multi-pronged strategy that really involves critical thinking and willingness to compromise and humanism. Utilizing empathy toward not just your constituents who are struggling, but toward the people that you’re working with and realizing where they’re coming from and trying to understand where they’re coming from. Working hard to not include any pitfalls that you know are going to cause them to be unable to support a bill.
MR: What do you think national Democrats can learn from Oklahoma?
Ikley-Freeman: Well I think there are a few things that can be learned. One is focusing on grassroots efforts and less on the endorsements and such that have kind of become the norm. Two, utilization of the county party. In my election specifically, without the county party, we wouldn’t have won. The county party let us completely run the campaign out of their office. Everything that they had to say for four months included our campaign in some way. They were always reaching out for volunteers to the many, many, many Democratic groups that exist, which is pretty consistent nationwide to have all those separate subsections. They were just really essential in making sure that as many were on board as possible.
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