OKLAHOMA CITY — As Kansas voters blocked a constitutional amendment that would enable abortion restrictions, Kendra Horn, a Democrat running for an open Senate seat in neighboring Oklahoma, was watching.
Oklahoma is an even more conservative state. It awarded former President Donald Trump one of his largest margins of victory in the country in 2020. It was the first to essentially end abortion availability after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling reversed Roe v. Wade in June. And abortion is such a touchy issue on the left that even the Democratic nominee for governor is a former Republican who refers to herself as pro-life.
But here was Horn, who served one term as the first Democratic woman to represent Oklahoma in the House, standing before a clutch of supporters at one of her first campaign events earlier this month, explaining why she had chosen to make abortion rights a centerpiece of her campaign to succeed longtime GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe, who is retiring at the end of the year.
“Right here where we stand, in this state, Oklahoma has the most extreme abortion bans in the entire country,” she said. “Not only does this put all of us at risk — all of us, not just women; it’s all of us at risk — it also is government overreach, plain and simple.”
Democrats across the country have seized on the defeat of the Kansas ballot referendum as a sign that voters’ fatigue over abortion bans and other GOP culture-war issues, combined with a string of legislative successes in Washington, could improve the party’s chances in the midterm elections. That’s especially true in the Senate, where Republicans need a net gain of a single seat to gain the majority.
But Horn stands out as a rare Democratic candidate in a blood-red state with both the experience and the national profile to draw national attention to her argument that the GOP has alienated enough voters to put an otherwise unwinnable race within reach.
Even her closest advisers admit that her campaign is a long shot. But longtime Oklahoma political strategists say if any Democrat could win in a state that Trump carried by 33 points in 2020, it’s Horn — who seemingly came out of nowhere to flip the state’s 5th District House seat in 2018.
Voters tired of ‘noise’
And even if she doesn’t win, they say, her strategy could hold one answer to a code the Democratic Party is desperately trying to crack as its influence is increasingly concentrated in urban and coastal areas: how to make inroads with voters in the rest of the country.
“When we talk to people in a real way, and we make a strong case, we don’t have to have to go to extremes to stand up for what’s right,” Horn said in an interview the day after her town hall-style meeting. “People are tired of a lot of the noise. They need to see that people are offering real solutions.”
Horn was speaking over a can of San Pellegrino in the empty lounge area of an Oklahoma City brewpub on a blazing hot afternoon. The restaurant, around the corner from her campaign headquarters, is one of dozens of establishments that have sprung up during the past decade offering artisanal fare and artistic design in the downtown area, near the state Capitol building. The growth is due in part to EPA “brownfields funding” that, combined with a special sales tax devoted to developer incentives, helped spur the renovation of dozens of historic properties.
Horn and other Democrats referred to the city’s transformation both as an example of how Oklahoma can defy stereotypes of a redneck backwater and of progress that she says the state’s politicians have put in jeopardy as they’ve been pulled to take more extreme positions in a party being reshaped by Trump.
“It’s actually hurting Oklahomans,” Horn said. “It impacts our economic opportunity. It impacts our ability to continue to grow.”
Run surprised allies
Both of Oklahoma’s Senate seats are on the ballot in November, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates both races as Solid Republican. After the state’s GOP-led Legislature redrew its congressional map this year, Horn’s former seat in the Oklahoma City-area 5th District became Solid Republican as well. The new congressional maps eliminated the state’s only remotely competitive House district and seemingly cut off Oklahoma Democrats’ only chance of winning a federal office for the foreseeable future.
Horn was the only Democrat to join more than a dozen Republicans who launched campaigns for Inhofe’s seat after he announced his retirement in March.
Even some of her closest confidants said they were surprised by the move. Horn has a reputation as one of the strongest fundraisers in the state and could have moved on to any number of positions in Oklahoma or the national Democratic Party.
“I was blunt with her that it would be extremely difficult, that she would have to run a nearly perfect campaign and have some breaks along the way,” said Ward Curtin, who managed Horn’s 2018 and 2020 House campaigns.
To win, Horn would have to prevail in the metropolitan areas surrounding Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma. She wouldn’t have to win the rural areas, but she also couldn’t get “totally demolished” there either, Curtin said.
Horn pulled off something similar in her first congressional campaign, when she beat longtime GOP incumbent Steve Russell to flip a district that Trump had won by 14 points two years earlier. It was a seat no Democrat had held since 1974, and she won it partly by relying on her interpersonal skills.
“She hugs everyone she meets, and it’s not some act,” Curtin said. “She’s 5-foot-2 in heels, and she doesn’t come across as threatening or demanding. She comes across as someone who really cares.”
Supporters at Horn’s town hall-style meeting said they appreciated someone making the effort.
“I have the distinct feeling that Democrats in the state, or people that lean that way, they’ve just kind of thrown in the towel,” said Richard Friant, a retired oil and gas industry accountant who lives in Yukon. “Republicans have infiltrated every level, from dogcatcher to the governor, and there’s not much we can do about it now. The horse is out of the barn.”
But while Republicans gave Horn credit for her retail political skills, they were extremely skeptical about her chances.
“I found it a bit puzzling, given how difficult it is for a Democrat to win statewide in Oklahoma these days,” said Cam Savage, a Republican strategist who worked as a consultant for the opponent who ousted Horn in 2020, Rep. Stephanie Bice. “The hardest thing to do in politics is to get people who are unengaged, and unlikely to vote, to vote.”
Horn is pitching herself as a moderate. She was a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition in the House, and CQ Roll Call vote studies showed she voted with her party only 90 percent of the time in 2019 and 82 percent in 2020. She even bucked her party on core issues, voting in May 2020 against Democrats’ $3 trillion coronavirus relief package, for example, because it had almost no Republican support.
Savage said her record still left plenty of opportunities for Republicans to attack her as a “Pelosi Democrat,” as Bice’s campaign did in 2020. “I just don’t think it’s believable that she now has become a moderate,” he said.
Horn doesn’t know yet who her Republican opponent will be. Tulsa-area Rep. Markwayne Mullin got the most votes in the June GOP primary but failed to clear the 50 percent threshold, so he faces a runoff Tuesday against T.W. Shannon, the state House speaker who ran for Oklahoma’s other Senate seat in 2014. Mullin has since been endorsed by Trump. Two Democrats are also in a runoff Tuesday for the nomination to challenge GOP Sen. James Lankford.
Contrast on abortion
Both Republican candidates have leaned into the culture-war talking points. On the night that Horn was holding her Oklahoma City town hall, Mullin and Shannon met for the first debate of the runoff. They opened with an agreement that the 2020 election was stolen. Both said they supported their state’s abortion ban and would support a federal ban that would not include exceptions for victims of rape or incest, or to save the mother’s life.
Mullin added that his wife would die to give birth if it came to that. Horn’s campaign, which has already been focusing its attacks on Mullin, saw the juxtaposition of the two events as a success. They couldn’t have asked for a clearer illustration of the contrast they are offering to voters. It could also be a sign that neither Republican thinks Horn poses enough of a threat to worry about a need to pivot toward the middle after the primary.
Horn’s campaign timed her first ad of the Senate campaign to air right before the Kansas vote, and she focused on Mullin’s support for a federal abortion ban. She ran a digital ad a week later attacking him for a comment he made during an interview with an outlet called NTD that companies like Starbucks and Amazon that have said they would pay for employees’ travel costs to get abortions should “get out of our state.” Horn’s ad claimed the ultimatum would “cost over 20,000 Oklahoma jobs.”
Mullin has also had ethical issues that Horn sees as a weakness. The House Ethics Committee advised him to stop personally appearing in commercials for his family plumbing company after a 2018 review found that his ads violated rules that members should avoid the appearance that they are monetizing their public role for personal gain. But The Daily Oklahoman found that ads in which he introduces himself as “Markwayne Mullin of Mullin Plumbing” had aired with increasing frequency after he announced his Senate campaign.
Mullin’s campaign didn’t return a request for comment, but he expanded on his view of the stakes of the 2022 election in the NTD interview, saying that the two top issues for Oklahoma voters are inflation and the perception that transgender athletes pose a threat to students. He also referenced the 2020 elections, in which Trump won all of the state’s 77 counties, as a sign of support for the anti-abortion movement. “That means that all 77 counties believe in the sanctity of life.”
Voters expanded Medicaid
A statewide poll of 500 registered voters by Oklahoma-based Amber Integrated in December, before the leak of the draft ruling that overturned Roe vs. Wade, found that 55 percent of the state’s voters didn’t want a complete abortion ban, while only 31 precent did. Another 14 percent were unsure.
Oklahoma also voted for Medicaid expansion in 2020, making it one of 15 states that voted for Trump in 2020 that have passed the progressive ballot measures.
Horn said such data points show that Oklahoma voters aren’t as deeply conservative as people like Mullin assume they are — they just don’t like the options they have been given. She said that’s why Oklahoma consistently ranks among the states in the nation with the lowest voter participation rates, a statistic Horn cites frequently on the campaign trail.
Republicans have solidified their control over Oklahoma politics in the two decades since Democrats last held a majority in the Legislature, a period that has coincided with the passage of more polarizing bills popular on the right on issues such as critical race theory or the rights of protesters.
The state’s congressional delegation has also faced pressure from the right. In 2021, leaders of the state GOP attempted to censure Inhofe and Lankford for voting to certify the 2020 election; that vote failed on a 93-122 vote. Democrats see such measures as an alarming sign since Inhofe and Lankford are by no means liberals. Inhofe was a staunch opponent of gay marriage and famously brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to disprove the existence of global warming.
But he also came from a waning generation of political leaders who made friends across the aisle and once professed a mutual, “genuine love” between himself and California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, with whom he worked and often sparred on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Horn noted the decline of such collegiality at her town hall.
“I get this a lot : ‘No, honey, bless your heart. I mean, bless your heart. What makes you think you can make a difference?’” she said. “Pretty simple. Because that is the only thing that’s ever substantially changed anything, is people showing up for the right reasons to say that something matters to them.”