Coburn will almost certainly have been re-elected to a second term by the time you read this, and the Coburn-Inhofe team will be back in full force. That raises some timely questions: Who are these two Oklahoma lawmakers, and what kind of political environment has shaped their approach to the West?
Oklahoma is a Choctaw word that roughly translates as "land of the red man." Though the state is still home to 38 federally recognized tribes, most of whom were forced to move here from other places, these days the word "red" more aptly describes the body politic. A recent Gallup poll ranks Oklahoma as the fifth most conservative state, right behind Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Idaho, and just in front of Utah. In 2008, all 77 counties voted for Republican John McCain for president.
Yet less than a century ago, Oklahoma was a stronghold of the populist-progressive movement, embracing politics so anti-corporate, anti-establishment and pro-little-guy that it's hard to imagine today. Up to the 1930s, Oklahoma's governors fought for regulations on banks and other big corporations, better workplace safety and an end to child labor. They promoted women's suffrage, prison reform, abolition of the death penalty and assistance for poor people.
There is no single political or historical narrative that explains how Oklahoma ended up so deeply Republican. Local circumstances often trump statewide trends and conventional wisdom. But a few more facts flesh out the basic context.
Oklahoma is a young state (only four states are younger), still dominated in many ways by rural, agrarian political thought, even though 60 percent of its 3.7 million residents live in the metro areas around Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The first day of hunting season is an official holiday in some areas. Oklahoma is also overwhelmingly white. The main minority groups -- blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans -- each constitute less than 8 percent of the population. Southeastern Oklahoma is even known as Little Dixie, because so many residents trace their roots to the Confederate states. And overall, Oklahoma is not well educated: About 23 percent of Oklahoma adults have a college degree, compared to a national average of 27.5 percent. (Colorado, the top Western state in this regard, hits 35 percent.)
The oil and gas industry has been a unifying factor for more than a century. "Oil made Oklahoma," Oklahoma Corporation Commission Chair Denise Bode told the Journal Record in 2001. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, it was "the largest oil-producing entity in the world," according to Oklahoma Geology Notes. Tulsa's renowned art galleries are a legacy of the early oil barons, who set out to create a cosmopolitan city with a St. Louis or Chicago feel. Oklahoma City, a former cow town, is now better known as the home of two of the nation's largest private oil and gas companies, Devon and Chesapeake. The Oklahoma Geological Survey says flatly that even today, "The exploration and production of oil and especially natural gas are the driving forces behind the economy of the State of Oklahoma."
The industry has been the top backer of Inhofe's campaigns and nearly the top backer of Coburn's campaigns, at the same time providing millions of dollars to candidates for state-level offices. Oil wells operated right on the grounds of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City for decades, drilling through flower beds and lawns to tap a vast underground pool of crude. It's the only capitol in the country with such steel-derrick scenery, a perfect symbol of the industry's power.
But there's another longtime Oklahoma trait that's arguably even more important: social conservatism. Even back in the populist-progressive era, Oklahomans didn't cotton to notions of modernism, intellectualism and popular culture. The string of early governors blatantly treated black people as an inferior race, determined to deny them voting and other rights. Evidence suggests that, during the 1920s, two-thirds of the state's mostly rural lawmakers were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan burned crosses in yards, barged into homes, and inflicted beatings and other vigilante acts on blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants. It took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1950 to force Oklahoma to allow blacks equal access to colleges.
From the Depression and Dust Bowl through the Korean War, Oklahoma remained solidly in the conservative faction of the Democratic Party, aligning itself with the Southern states. Oilman Robert S. Kerr, a Democrat who served one term as governor and three as senator, saw what was coming. In the late 1960s, en route home from D.C. on a private plane, Kerr confided to the Tulsa Tribune D.C. bureau chief, Frosty Troy, that Oklahoma eventually would be a Republican state. Troy, now 76, recalls that he was incredulous. How could Kerr be so certain? Troy wondered.
"The Daily Oklahoman (newspaper) and the Southern Baptist church," Kerr explained.
Kerr was prescient: The arch-conservative Oklahoman -- first under Edward K. Gaylord, one of the founders of the John Birch Society, and later under his son Edward L. Gaylord -- wielded enormous political power, rewarding friends (mostly Republicans) and punishing enemies (typically Democrats and unions), often with venomous front-page editorials. The newspaper operated much like today's relentless national right-wing media, led by Fox News demagogues Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly and radio flamethrower Rush Limbaugh.