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Democrats wondering about future in Oklahoma


OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ What happened and how do we recover?

Those are the questions Oklahoma Democrats are trying to answer following a general election that saw their legislative numbers tumble to the lowest point in eight decades.

Many Democrats blamed the loss of eight state House and three state Senate seats on Republican candidates riding the coattails of a strong presidential vote in Oklahoma for Republican George W. Bush of Texas.

But interviews with legislators, party officials and others indicate that the answers to the Democratic election disaster may not be that simple.

Among other the reasons given for the GOP's success were:

_ Republicans fielded younger, more aggressive candidates who simply outworked older Democratic incumbents.

_ The GOP was able to take advantage of state Health Department scandal and associated problems in the nursing home industry. The scandal was ``an enormous help,'' Republican Gov. Frank Keating said.

_ The odds caught up with some Democratic incumbents in areas that have increasingly voting Republican in recent years.

_ Voters in some districts are in tune with top GOP issues, such as right to work.

_ The religious right came out in force in some areas of the state.

``The numbers were disappointing and it's a little difficult to sort things out and find out what happened,'' admitted Gordon Melson, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

Melson was among those citing the Bush coattail theory, but conceded other factors may have been at play.

He rejected the notion, however, that the election means Keating has a mandate for an agenda that includes right to work and major tax cuts.

All agree money was not the main factor in the election, with Democrats in many districts matching or outspending their Republican counterparts.

The election increased the number of House Democrats from 40 to 48 and decreased the number of Democrats from 61 to 53, only a five-vote majority.

The last time Republicans had that many seats was in 1921, when they controlled the House, 55-33, after the Harding landslide. Two years later, Democrats swept the elections to take a 93-14 edge in the House.

Republicans gained three seats in the Senate this year, defeating incumbent Democrats Ben Brown of Oklahoma City and Lewis Long of Glenpool in the Tulsa area. They also picked up the south-central district of Sen. Trish Weedn, D-Purcell, who did not seek re-election.

Long and Brown were right-to-work opponents. In fact, Long was chairman of the committee where the legislation has been sent the last few years.

The GOP now has 18 members in the Senate, compared with 30 Democrats. The significance of that is that Democrats can no longer pass bills as emergency measures without Republican support.

With Republicans controlling more than a third of the vote in the House the past six years, Keating has been able to exercise his veto power 240 times without fear of being overridden.

As they try to regroup, Democrats face obstacles in addition to turning around the hearts and minds of the electorate.

For one, redistricting will be accomplished ahead of the 2002 elections and Democrats stand to lose ground to Republicans, who are increasing in registering.

Democrats outnumbered Republicans 4-to-1 a couple of decades ago. That edge has dropped below 2-to-1.

Steve Edwards, state Republican chairman, says many Oklahomans are Democrats in name only and have voted for GOP candidates for years.

Keating says the election shows that if Republicans put up a better candidate, they can be elected in any area of the state.

One bright spot for Democrats in the general election was Democrat Brad Carson's victory in the 2nd Congressional District. But Republicans still control the other five congressional seats as both parties await the 2000 Census and the prospect that Oklahoma will lose one U.S. House post.

The fact that Republicans are entrenched in Congress, with the likes of popular Reps. Steve Largent of Tulsa, J.C. Watts of Norman and Wes Watkins of Stillwater, gives the GOP more time and money to devote to legislative contests.

As they look toward 2002, Republicans are eagerly expecting Census figures will lead to new urban seats in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas, a development that favors GOP candidates.

The election results will put more pressure on Democratic officials, such as newly nominated House Speaker Larry Adair of Stilwell and state Chairman Mike Mass of Hartshorne, to recruit good candidates and protect Democrats now in office.

``It's going to be a real test,'' Melson said of whether Democrats can maintain legislative control in the very near future.

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