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Oklahoma: The unlikeliest battleground state

Why Oklahoma, perhaps the most conservative state in the country, is the site of an unexpectedly fierce battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Oklahoma State Cowboys mascot Pistol Pete performs during a game against the Arizona Wildcats on Sept. 8, 2011 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty)
Oklahoma State Cowboys mascot Pistol Pete performs during a game against the Arizona Wildcats on Sept. 8, 2011 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla.

Oklahoma is so conservative that former Democratic Gov. David Walters likes to say it's not merely a red state, but a “maroon” one. Republicans control all seven federal offices representing the state, all the statewide executive offices, have super majorities in the state House and Senate, and the GOP candidate has won the state's last three presidential elections by 30 points or more.

But next week, Oklahoma will briefly be at the center of Democratic politics as the unlikeliest battleground of Super Tuesday, when 11 states will hold presidential nominating contests between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders all at once.

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With Clinton counting on wins in six southern states and Sanders eyeing four to the north, that leaves both campaigns fighting hard for Oklahoma. “We’re kind of delighted to be a battleground state," said Walters. "We don't get to be that very often."

Sanders will make a rare visit to Oklahoma Wednesday, and it’s one of only five states where the Vermont senator is running TV ads. His campaign also dispatched their top organizer from Iowa, who was also employee No. 1 outside the national staff, to run the state. By week's end, Sanders will have four offices and 16 full-time staffers on the ground.

Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, is also targeting the state with TV ads, and decided to send Bill Clinton to speak in Tulsa last weekend. They also sent a veteran of their Iowa campaign to run press operations in the Sooner State, and Clinton has taken the time to personally weigh in on a handful of local issues.

With just 38 delegates, Oklahoma is unlikely to decide the Democratic nomination, but it would be an important moral victory for either candidate. Clinton is hoping for a clean sweep of the South to begin to push her rival out of the race.

For Sanders, a victory in Oklahoma would show he can win outside liberal enclaves, and he could argue a near even split of Super Tuesday with Clinton, six states to five.

If you add in all the contests next week, including Sanders-friendly caucuses in Nebraska, Kansas and Maine, along with Clinton-friendly Louisiana, then Oklahoma could maybe, just maybe, allow Sanders to finish the week with one more state in his column than Clinton’s.

As a southern state neighboring Arkansas, Oklahoma was always seen as Clinton country. She beat Barack Obama there by more than 30 points in 2008, scoring her largest win over the then-senator outside her home state. And she and her husband have deep roots to Democratic establishment and donor class in the state. Clinton was 25 points ahead in the most recent Sooner poll, taken in January. 

But a number of factors have conspired in Sanders’ favor in Oklahoma this year. And a more recent PPP poll of 12 states with primaries or caucuses in March found Oklahoma to be the closest race of all, with just 2 points separating Sanders and Clinton.

For one, the state is demographically friendlier to Sanders than the rest of the South, with about 75 percent of the population being white and only 8 percent African-American. Native Americans and Latinos are actually the largest minorities in the state.

But the biggest “ah-ha” moment for the Sanders campaign came when they realized that the state’s Democratic Party last year opened its primary to independent voters for the first time ever. The Republican Party decided to keep their primary closed to only Republicans.

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Sanders is generally strongest among independents and the state now has about 150,000 of them who have to pick between Sanders or Clinton if they want to have a say in the presidential primary. Even better for Sanders, independents skew younger in Oklahoma.

“This was probably not a place that eight months ago the Clinton campaign would be moving really good people to try to hang onto,” said Pete D'Alessandro, who is running Sanders’ campaign in the state.

Keith Gaddie, the chair of the political science department at the University of Oklahoma, said Sanders’ message is surprisingly well-suited for state known for sending to Washington two of the Senate’s most conservative members.

“There's a long tradition of fairly progressive socialist thought in this state,” he said. “This is the place where Southern populism and Nebraska agrarian prairie populism collide.”

Oklahoma had five socialists in the state legislation in 1910, according to Gaddie, and it was one of the best states for socialist presidential candidates Norman Thomas and Eugene Debs, who is a hero of Sanders’. Nodding to its long history of union organizing, now mostly eradicated, the state’s motto is “Labor omnia vincit” -- Latin for “Labor conquers all.”

Tad Devine, Sanders’ top national strategist, said the campaign identified this independent streak early. “In Oklahoma, whoever is the most outsider tends to have the best chance there,” he said.

With complete Republican control, D'Alessandro said the state offers the starkest example of everything Sanders is fighting against. “My God, they're having earthquakes because of fracking, they have a budget deficit because of corporate welfare to the oil industry,” he said. A crash in oil prices and tax cuts to the industry have led to a series of critical budget shortfalls.

On top of all that, the state has hemorrhaged so many Democratic voters over the years that the party is largely left with the hardcore base, and Sanders’ team feels they have chance to notch an unlikely win.

Walters, who is supporting Clinton along with almost every prominent Democrat in the state disagreed. “She's awfully strong and it'll be a bit of battle here, but we're expecting her to win,” he said.

There are still plenty of old-line Democrats in the state, he noted, and Clinton is well-known and liked in the state.

“Hillary is every bit as progressive as Bernie is,” Walters explained, but with more responsible plans and more experience. “She's going to be a Margaret Thatcher-type leader that's going to be strong and compassionate and smart as a whip.”