Some Oklahoma lawmakers have never faced an opponent (NewsOK)

April 8, 2018

by Dale Denwalt 

Effie Craven was sitting in an airport, pondering a question she'd had for some time.

How many Oklahoma legislators go without an opponent, leaving them free to file for office without an election?

The astute politics-watcher couldn't find the data anywhere else so she built a database of her own, which she shared with The Oklahoman. According to her research, 28 state lawmakers are in office today because there was no opponent in their last election.

Forty state representatives have ran unopposed at least once in their political career.

Three sitting senators haven't appeared on a ballot since 2006.

"I was anticipating the numbers of unopposed races were going to be pretty high, and I think that was confirmed," said Craven, who is a board member of the Capitol advocacy group Let's Fix This.

The result is bad for democracy, she said. Craven lives in an Oklahoma City neighborhood represented by Democratic state Rep. Jason Dunnington and Republican state Sen. David Holt, both of whom only drew opponents in their first primary elections.

During a community meeting with the lawmakers, Craven told Holt that if she wanted to show her support, his lack of opposition prevented it.

"I told him I would like to vote for you, but your name literally never appears on my ballot," she recalled saying. "You can't say that Democrats support you when we never get the chance to vote for you."

James Davenport, political science professor at Rose State College, said a lack of electoral competition is problematic because it could lead to less accountability at the Legislature if a lawmaker doesn't think they have to campaign for a seat they've already won.

It can also make voters think there's no reason to vote.

"If there's not really a choice offered, what's the point in me taking the time to get out and vote?" Davenport said. "You have this issue in some ways disenfranchising whole groups of voters because there's no competition for that seat."

Term-limited state Rep. Eric Proctor, who only appeared on the ballot in 2006 when he beat a 10-year incumbent, attributes his lack of opponents to his style of representation and said he has remained accountable to his district.

Until recently, he remained in campaign mode, meeting with constituents and handing out his personal cell phone number so they could talk to him directly.

"I never really stopped campaigning. Even when I didn't have a race, I knocked doors," said Proctor, D-Tulsa. "I can't speak to the other people, but for me, I never stopped listening and never stopped talking to my district. I think that's a big part about why I didn't have a race."

The teacher strike and ensuing rallies at the Oklahoma Capitol this week have thrust electoral politics to the forefront, especially with candidate filing starting next week on Wednesday.

Davenport said there might be a spike in campaigns, but noted the cost of running for election weighs heavily on a candidate. That, he said, might be a contributing factor to the lack of contested elections.

Running a campaign costs money, time and in some cases, reputation.

"If you think of all the criticisms that have been leveled at public officials just this year, that's not going to change just because someone else occupies the office," he said. "There's a lot of people who could be very excellent at being in the Legislature who simply don't want to expose themselves to that constant scrutiny."

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