BEGGS — After participating in April’s teacher rallies at the Oklahoma State Capitol, Republican Logan Phillips had a plan: Pursue an open House District 24 seat in 2020 when Democratic Minority Leader Steve Kouplen would be term-limited.
As Republicans have historically done to combat Democratic advantages in eastern Oklahoma, the Tulsa Community College professor felt he needed to lay groundwork for such a campaign, so he filed against Kouplen in 2018 just to make connections.
Months later, Phillips received 51.8 percent of the vote and defeated Kouplen — the House’s top Democrat — despite knocking no doors, conducting no fundraising and spending no money.
“Not a penny,” Phillips said Thursday after being sworn into the Oklahoma House of Representatives. “I didn’t buy any newspaper ads. I did my initial posting on Facebook where I said I’d signed up during the teacher protest, but that was about the extent of the social media push. I answered questions when I got phone calls.”
Reached Friday by phone while welding a trailer at his ranch, Kouplen said his defeat “would make a good case study for a political science class.”
“It’s got me bumfuzzled,” Kouplen said. “I’ve thought about it since the election. I just don’t have a good logical explanation for what happened.”
Logan Phillips saw new voters on Election Day
While Phillips said he spoke at a few Republican Party events in House District 24 — which sits south of Tulsa and covers parts of Okmulgee, Okfuskee and Hughes counties — he received no support from House GOP leaders during his campaign.
“I didn’t hear from anyone until basically I was elected, and then they tracked me down,” Phillips said with a laugh.
House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) confirmed the story.
“We did not spend any money against Leader Kouplen,” Echols said. “Leader Kouplen was a good member and would have been a good leader. We’re excited to have (new House Democratic Minority) Leader (Emily) Virgin, and I think she will do a good job, too. But that is true — GOP leadership did not spend any money in Leader Kouplen’s race.”
Phillips’ unusual path to office has left political observers baffled, and his low profile means even the Oklahoma Education Association has not included him in its “education caucus” press releases. A son of and brother to Oklahoma teachers, Phillips previously taught at-risk youths in a virtual classroom, and he filed for office during the teacher walkout. Such a narrative might have been compelling, had people heard it.
“I’ve taught in pretty much every sector, but workforce development is really what I’m passionate about,” Phillips said Thursday in a crowded House lounge where new lawmakers mingled with their families.
So how did a political newcomer who spent no money and knocked no doors defeat Kouplen, the 10-year incumbent from the traditionally blue eastern Oklahoma?
“This is just my own little story of what happened,” Phillips said. “I went in to vote this year, and during my time voting two elder men came in and (…) asked (the election administrator) specifically how they vote Republican. They said they are 65 and 53 years old and that they had never voted before in their lives. So for whatever happened in this election, I think we got Republican voters out and new voters who have never participated, and I think the national elections and national issues — (Supreme Court Justice Brett) Kavanaugh hearings and that sort of stuff — really sort of sparked them to come out and be engaged.”
Kouplen had a similar analysis.
“I think the national politics have gotten so nasty. I had a lot of people tell me that the Supreme Court debacle really upset a lot of folks,” Kouplen said. “And there were some national commercials I saw that said, ‘Any Republican is better than any Democrat.’ And then the anti-incumbent deal. And then I didn’t work hard enough. I’m not going to put that on everybody else. I’ll take my share of the blame because I probably didn’t work as hard as I should have. But it’s sort of a perfect storm. It’s one that will baffle me until the day I die.”
Kouplen ultimately won two of HD 24’s three counties but finished 350 votes behind Phillips, losing handily in Okmulgee County.
While Kouplen spent about $36,700 on his re-election effort, Oklahoma Ethics Commission filings indicate he finished the cycle with $56,837.81 unspent in his campaign account.
“I did send out about five mailers, I guess, and attended every function in the district,” Kouplen said. “I don’t know that [not spending enough money] was totally the problem. It could have been. I didn’t really have a budget that I thought had to be spent to win.”
Virgin seeks better communication with rural voters
How a rural Democrat might “win” in the future has already become a topic of discussion among prominent party leaders.
“We obviously have to do a better job of communicating with rural Oklahoma,” said Virgin (D-Norman), who was chosen to lead the 25-member House Democratic Caucus on Thursday. “Now our task is to communicate in districts where we don’t have a Democratic representative. The interesting thing is, when you look at polling on the issues, the constituents in rural Oklahoma agree with us on education and health care. But we are not getting that message through.”
While Virgin represents the core portion of what some Republicans jokingly call The People’s Republic of Norman, she grew up south of the city in Noble.
“I think it gives me a good perspective on some of the rural areas. Noble is not quite as rural as it used to be. It has grown a lot. But I grew up in the country and didn’t have any neighbors. So I know what it’s like. No one ever knocked on our door when I was growing up,” Virgin said. “I understand that campaigning is different in rural Oklahoma, but I think the basics remain the same. So when we are talking about candidate recruitment, we’ve got to make sure we are finding candidates who are willing to do the work.”
That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Johnny Tadlock (D-Idabel), one of four rural Democrats in the 57th Oklahoma Legislature. Incumbent Democrat and retired educator Donnie Condit also lost his McAlester-area seat — to Army veteran David Smith — and other eastern Oklahoma open seats flipped from blue to red as well.
“When I’m down there in that part of the country, I know most all of the folks down there,” Tadlock said Thursday at the Capitol. “I don’t rely on mail-outs or things like that. I get out there and I’m on the ground and I talk to those people. I think that helps me considerably.”
In 2016, Tadlock faced a Republican challenger and defeated him handily despite the district’s support of then-GOP-candidate Donald Trump. In McCurtain County alone, Trump received 80.7 percent of the vote, but Tadlock still received 63.1 percent.
“Those people in the city here, it’s a little bit different,” he said. “They may know these legislators by mail-outs, on the news or anything. The people down there in my part of the country know me when I walk into Walmart or I walk into one of the local feed stores or something like that. They know me.”
Tadlock: National, state politics ‘are two different issues’
Tadlock joined Kouplen, Virgin and even Phillips in saying rural voters seem to associate national political issues with local legislative races.
“They seem to have a tendency to believe that if that’s what’s going on in Washington, that must be what’s going on in the state of Oklahoma. And those are two different issues,” Tadlock said. “Out talking to people, campaigning and things like that, you hear people regurgitate things that they hear on a national level, and I’m thinking, ‘That has nothing to do with state issues.’ And I may agree with them.”
A veteran of the U.S. Army and National Guard, Phillips agreed.
“It’s a very rural area, and (my constituents) are conservative. They want conservative ideas,” said Phillips, whose mother, father and sister are also teachers. “They’ve voted Democrat for the last 50 years, but the reality is that an Oklahoma Democrat is a pretty conservative person. With everything that happened with the teacher protest, the walkouts and everything going on in our district, they wanted to try something new.”
As did Kouplen, who served as Oklahoma Farm Bureau president from 1999 to 2007.
“Rural folks are pretty conservative. I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty conservative Democrat,” Kouplen said. “But it’s become an R-D labeling issue. Unfortunately, a lot of people want to perceive rural Democrats in Oklahoma as liberal and out of touch with what their feelings are.”
‘I vote the person not the party’
On a sunny Friday afternoon in Beggs, Janis Watkins loaded pumpkins into her car at the corner of Main Street and Broadway. Behind her stood the town’s vacant armory building, a 1936 project of the Works Progress Administration. A sign noted the building’s status: for sale.
A retired educator, Watkins was hefting gourds as part of her work with the Beggs Chamber of Commerce, which selected a new board Thursday and has been working to bring atmosphere and activity to the downtown area.
“Total surprise because I’ve known Steve probably 10 years,” Watkins said of Kouplen’s defeat. “The only thing I can think of is maybe straight-party voting because I hadn’t heard anything against Steve. I hadn’t heard about anybody being mad at him. It was a total surprise.”
Data provided by Bryan Dean of the Oklahoma State Election Board support Watkins’ thoughts about straight-party voting:
Phillips received about 48 percent of his votes from those who marked “Republican” on the straight-party portion of their ballots. Kouplen received only 31 percent of his votes from straight-party Democrats.
“I vote the person not the party,” said Watkins, a Democrat who voted for Kouplen. “I knew Steve. I didn’t know the other young man.”
Few in Beggs do. While he has family north of the district in Mounds, Phillips said he moved into HD 24 about five years ago and lives on its northern edge — with a Mounds address — in Okmulgee County. Beggs sits about 10 minutes south, with HD 24 jutting east to capture the northern-most neighborhoods of Okmulgee and sprawling south for more than an hour’s drive to its largest municipality, Holdenville, population 5,500.
“As a representative, my goal is to revitalize our downtowns and hopefully create wrap-around services for young business startups,” Phillips said Thursday, his message meshing with the hopes of Watkins and others in Beggs, should they eventually hear it from the new legislator most have never met.
‘A lot of people don’t know there is a downtown Beggs’
Directly across the street from Watkins’ festive efforts, the Beggs Cafe has brought life to a 1907 building, serving food from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Its owner, Randy Fowble, opened the eatery in October 2017 and knows Kouplen.
But Fowble votes in Republic, Missouri, where he drives a bus for seniors, the disabled and veterans on Mondays and Tuesdays. He said Beggs is on “a really big upswing” and praised recent events that have drawn attention to the town’s business district.
“Downtown is a difficult deal because there’s a bank downtown and a post office, but if you live in the outskirts of town, you get your mail delivered to you and you bank online,” Fowble said. “So you never come to downtown Beggs. A lot of people don’t know there is a downtown Beggs, and they don’t know all the things going on down here unless you go to the doctor’s office or the (Napa Auto) Parts store or to the cafe.”
Fowble relayed an “amazing” story about a recent customer who lives three blocks away.
“I was talking to him. He said, ‘I didn’t even know there was a cafe in downtown Beggs,’ and he lives two blocks east and one block north. I said, ‘What are you talking about? Do you not ever come downtown?’ He said, ‘Nope.’ He goes out of town that way and out of town that way,” Fowble recalled, pointing as he laughed.
Fowble said America’s two primary political parties have functionally swapped sides and, thus, supporters over the past few decades.
“It’s like they just did a flip-flop,” he said. “I’ve been a Democrat my whole life. My whole family was. Our Democrats today aren’t the Democrats we were used to.”
Fowble expressed disappointment in national Democratic Party leaders such as California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to reclaim her role as U.S. Speaker of the House when Congress reconvenes.
‘Out of the woods’ and into the House
Eating in Fowble’s cafe on Friday was another longtime Democrat: Okmulgee District 1 County Commissioner Ron Ballard. After lunch back in his office, Ballard expressed frustration over the role straight-party voting played in Kouplen’s loss and his own 98-vote victory against Republican Aaron Myers, who did campaign for the position.
“We were both victims of straight-party voting. There were more commissioners who were affected by this, too,” Ballard said. “I’ve made the comment that all of the crazies and the crazy stuff that’s going on in Washington, [voters] are blaming us for their ignorance up there. We have nothing to do with that, but I think that’s where a lot of that comes from. And I’m a Democrat. I don’t approve of a bunch of the crap they’ve been doing up there. It’s stupid. It’s costing taxpayers money. It could be very well spent somewhere else. Send it down here for the roads.”
Ballard said he could not believe voters elected Logan Phillips when he did not advertise his candidacy or attend most candidate forums.
“I wouldn’t know the man if he walked into this office right now. I just don’t know him,” Ballard said. “And for somebody just to come out of the woods and run for a state office and win it like he won it, we’ve got problems here, folks. I can’t see what Kouplen has done that was so negative. Other than being Democrat. That’s the only thing I can see.”