Anyone growing up and voting in southeast Oklahoma in the last 75 years has either heard or experienced the following, “I am a registered Democrat so I can vote in the local elections.”
This was, in fact, the case until the 2008 presidential and gubernatorial races swept Republican throughout southeastern Oklahoma — and most notably the 2012 election when the Democrat stronghold District 7 State Senate seat held by the late Gene Stipe, at one time the longest serving state legislator in the United States (53 years) was flipped to Republican.
Six years later in 2018 both the District 17 and District 18 State House seats were filled by Republicans and for the first time since Oklahoma statehood next week’s primary election will find only Republicans voting to choose the next Pittsburg County Sheriff. You can’t get much more local than that!
The eighteen or so counties in southeastern Oklahoma historically called “Little Dixie” seemed to acquire its label, and its allegiance to the Democrat Party, due to several factors. The Five Tribes that were removed to the southeastern region of Indian Territory beginning in the 1830’s and the other southerners relocating to the area following the Civil War brought with them not only a southern culture, but also differences with the federal government then controlled by Republicans. In 1907, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt orchestrated the demise of the State of Sequoyah (now eastern/southeastern Oklahoma) primarily due to the inconvenience of two new “liberal” U.S. Senators from the new Little Dixie.
Bob Blackburn, the executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society shared:
“When the Indian tribes are moved out of the southeast, they bring with them very much a southern culture,” Blackburn said. “John Ross, for example, was one-eighth Cherokee, but southern through and through. The richest Choctaw, Robert M. Jones, a delegate to the Confederate Congress during the Civil War, was half Choctaw half Scotch. And so, the mixed blood leaders were all southerners. They were tied in with the southern economy.”
“All five major Tribes side with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Their ties to the south would help shape Oklahoma’s view of the Federal government through statehood, and beyond. The mythology along with a little bit of the reality, is that the Republicans — Abraham Lincoln — invaded the south, and the lost cause was trying to save the purity of the Constitution, state’s rights, their ability to leave the Union, that without the Republicans and without Abraham Lincoln they would have their own nation,” Blackburn said.
The Little Dixie and Democrat stronghold continued throughout much of the 20th Century, though the rest of the U.S. southeast began to switch to the Republican Party, primarily due to the economic conditions thrust upon Oklahoma during the 1930s, a new allegiance to Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt’s financial rescue efforts and to the dominant Oklahoma Democrat leaders that would soon follow with the likes of former Governor and “King of the U.S. Senate” Robert S. Kerr, Congressman and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Carl Albert, longest serving Oklahoma Governor George Nigh, and the aforementioned one-time longest serving state legislator in the U.S., Oklahoma State Senator Gene Stipe. Along with the countless other local, state, and national offices that were held and contested by Democrats it is easy to see why folks remained registered as Democrats, “so they could vote.”
Then, almost 30 years ago now, things changed and the Democrats began to “lose their grip” on Little Dixie and Oklahoma. David Boren, another former Democratic governor then U.S. Senator with strong southeast Oklahoma ties resigned from the U.S. Senate followed by both Oklahoma U.S. Senate seats being filled by Republicans.
Oklahoma enacted state term limits, thus preventing political dynasties like State Senator Gene Stipe who in 2003 pleaded guilty to federal campaign violations and resigned from the Senate. And most polarizing to the Little Dixie Democrats, and some still say racism played a role, was the 2008 Presidential race of President Barack Obama who, though goes on to win the 2008 and 2012 presidency, but was strongly defeated in every county in Oklahoma, including all of the counties of Little Dixie.
Using Pittsburg County May 31, 2020 election data as an example of the continuing political swing there are 21, 899 active registered voters of which 10,108 are Democrats, 8, 763 Republicans, 75 Libertarians, and 2,953 Independents. (Statewide 1,860,941 active voters-637,966 Democrats, 942,164 Republicans, 10,786 Libertarians, 270,025 Independents). In the last 10 years in Pittsburg County 364 Republicans have changed their registration to Democrat while 3,637 Democrats and Independents have changed their registration to Republican. And in the last year alone only 73 registrations were changed to the Democratic, 1,026 voters changed to the Republic Party.
The political flip of Little Dixie has changed quickly in Pittsburg County and throughout southeastern Oklahoma. And no more will this be clearly represented than when Pittsburg County voters go to the polls on Tuesday and when “being registered as a Democrat to vote in local elections” really no longer applies.
The Democrat ballot will include a primary race in the Senate District 7 race and all-Democrat race for Pittsburg County court clerk, while the Republican ballot will also include a primary in the Senate District 7 race, Republican only primaries in both the District 17 and District 18 Oklahoma House and most historic first time since Oklahoma Statehood when only Republicans will decide the outcome of the Pittsburg County sheriff’s race.