Blue lightning has struck twice out on the Great Plains: On Tuesday night, Democrat J.J. Dossett won a special election for the state Senate in Oklahoma by a healthy 56-44 margin, picking up a Republican-held seat in the Tulsa area that Mitt Romney carried with an astounding 70 percent of the vote. What makes this even more amazing is that just a few months ago, Democrat Cyndi Munson also wrested a dark red legislative seat from the GOP in the Oklahoma City suburbs, giving Democrats two victories in districts they should never have been competitive in on paper.
But fortunately, elections aren't run on paper—they’re run in real life, and Democrats had some advantages heading into this race. A special election became necessary when Republican state Sen. Rick Brinkley pled guilty last summer to charges that he’d embezzled $1.8 million from his employer, a local branch of the Better Business Bureau, in order to feed a gambling addiction. Whether or not that ugliness cast a pall over Republicans, we do know that Democrats wound up with the abler candidate.
Dossett, a school teacher and Afghanistan vet, happened to be the son of Rick Dossett, a popular high school principal whose well-regarded reputation helped extend a measure of name recognition to his son. Dossett’s background as a teacher allowed him to focus his campaign heavily on education, an ideal topic for a Democrat running on Republican turf. And like his father before him, Dossett also coaches his school’s boys’ basketball team—a sport that’s close to a religion in many communities. He even cancelled his election night watch party to coach a game!
Republican businessman and pastor David McLain, meanwhile, emerged from a rough GOP primary that "left some sore feelings,” according to the Tulsa World, and was not as well-known. He campaigned on typical conservative themes, but sometimes “small government” isn’t a winning message for folks tired of cuts to education funding. McLain also seemed to avoid the media—more than one article on the race (such as this one and this one) reported that McLain would not respond to interview requests. In a low-turnout special election against a better-known opponent, hiding from the public can be deadly.
And indeed, it appears to have been so for McLain, a recipe that allowed Dossett to win this seat for Democrats for the first time since 1990, despite getting outspent. The party is still deep in the minority in the state Senate, though, with just nine members (including Dossett) compared to 39 for Republicans. But Dossett's huge upset, like Munson’s, shows what can happen when one side takes victory for granted, and it should inspire Democrats facing long odds everywhere.