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The National Implications of Oklahoma’s GOP Primary

Oklahoma State Capitol (Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re reading National Review, you’ve no doubt digested the news from the recent primaries in Florida and Arizona. But did you catch the primary runoff in Oklahoma? Because the results in Oklahoma might tell us more about the future of American politics than the higher-profile results from elsewhere.

Starting with West Virginia in late February, a number of Republican-majority, right-to-work states have seen strikes by public-school teachers, and the teachers have, by and large, gained significant concessions from state legislatures. These strikes have, not surprisingly, energized the Left, and especially the rising socialist Left. Interestingly, though, they’ve also revealed cleavages among Republicans. In May, for example, Travis Brenda, a socially conservative public-school teacher in rural Rockcastle County, Ky., bested a rising-star Republican incumbent in a GOP state-senate primary. (I wrote about the race a few months back, and I added some thoughts on its larger implications.) What was the issue that propelled him to victory? Teacher pay, of course.

Which leads me to Oklahoma. My colleague Mark Wright has forgotten more about Oklahoma politics than I’ll ever know, and I imagine we won’t quite see eye to eye on what’s happening in his home state, so I’ll tread lightly. Basically, the Oklahoma state legislature tried to meet some of the teachers’ demands after a statewide strike. Most Republican legislators decided to get behind legislation that would boost teacher pay. However, 19 legislators voted against the bill, presumably out of concern about its fiscal consequences. Now, after the GOP primary runoff earlier this week, it is assured that 15 of them won’t return to the legislature next year, as CNN reports. Some chose to retire from office, others were term-limited, and then, most notably, eight of them lost their primaries to opponents who were more solicitous of the interests of public-school teachers.

It must be said that in a state like Oklahoma, which has grown monolithically Republican since the Clinton era, the Republican party represents a wide spectrum of opinion. As David Schleicher, a professor at Yale Law School, observed in “Federalism and State Democracy,” and as the University of Pennsylvania political scientist Daniel Hopkins delineates in his important new book The Increasingly United States, most U.S. voters rely on partisan heuristics about national politics — “which party do I back in federal elections?” — when they vote in partisan elections at the state and local level. There are, to be sure, exceptions, as evidenced by the gravity-defying popularity of the Republican governors of Massachusetts and Maryland, both of which are monolithically Democratic as Oklahoma is Republican. For the most part, though, Americans don’t really follow state and local politics closely, at least outside of very visible gubernatorial races, and so they go with the partisan brands they know.

The upshot of this tendency to rely on national partisan heuristics is that a political up-and-comer who might be a Democratic in a monolithically Democratic state might just be a Republican in a monolithically Republican state. And as a result, there can be robust intra-party debates at the state level on policy questions that touch on longstanding ideological debates. What we’re seeing in Oklahoma is that ideological small-government conservatives have been defeated, in a closed GOP primary, by Republicans who are, at a minimum, more amenable to spending more money on public-school-teacher salaries. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these Republicans are ideological apostates. I honestly couldn’t tell you if that were so. It does mean Oklahoma’s Republican party has, on this one dimension, inched to the center.

I’ve written a tiny bit about how conservatives ought to approach the teacher-pay question here on the Corner, but you really ought to read Mark’s take (which you’ll find here) and Josh McCabe’s. Both of them have influenced my thinking on the subject.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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