How an Oklahoma Democrat pulled off a historic upset her opponent didn't see coming

Democratic Rep.-elect Kendra Horn

Probably the biggest shock on election night anywhere was Democrat Kendra Horn unseating GOP Rep. Steve Russell 51-49 in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District, an Oklahoma City seat that had backed Donald Trump 53-40 two years ago. There were signs, though, that this race was worth watching, especially in the final days. To begin with, while Trump still handily carried this district, he did perform a bit worse than Mitt Romney’s 59-41 margin four years before, an early indication that this seat could be in play in a good political climate for Democrats.

Horn, who has worked for several nonprofits, also ran a much more serious campaign than any Democrat here had in a long time. She outraised Russell $541,000 to $207,000 from July 1 to Oct. 17, though she had to use some of that money to win a late August primary runoff. Mike Bloomberg’s Independence USA super PAC also went up with a $410,000 TV buy supporting Horn and attacking Russell in the final week of the race in what was the only serious outside spending for either side. Still, even with Horn’s financial advantages, it seemed unlikely that she would score a win in a red seat that hadn’t sent a Democrat to the House since the mid-1970s. So, what happened?

It seems that Russell just didn’t think he was in for a rough ride until perhaps election night. Newsok.com’s Justin Wingerter writes that Russell was so slow to start campaigning that there was speculation in GOP circles that he would end up not seeking re-election. Russell did ramp up his schedule in the final month by hitting industry events such as an oil and gas conference and a health center ribbon-cutting, but it was too little, too late. Roll Call’s Bridget Bowman notes that, according to two unnamed sources, Russell never even told the NRCC he was in danger.

It’s also likely that outgoing GOP Gov. Mary Fallin’s toxic unpopularity dragged Russell down in this district, which she’d represented from 2006 to 2010. While Republican Kevin Stitt beat Democrat Drew Edmondson 54-42 statewide in the race to succeed Fallin, Stitt did poorly in the Oklahoma City area. Daily Kos Election’s preliminary calculations have Edmondson carrying Oklahoma’s 5th 53-44.

Independence USA ads wisely made sure to tie Russell to Fallin’s legacy, hitting Russell for voting with Fallin to underfund schools while he served in the legislature. In a state that has seen budget cuts lead to four-day school weeks and a teacher’s strike, this seems to have been an effective line of attack for voters frustrated with Fallin and looking for change.

Still, the few polls we’d seen showed Russell far ahead. His campaign released several surveys from the firm VCreek/AMG during the general election giving him a wide lead, including a final mid-October survey that had him ahead 51-35. A pair of fall polls from the independent firm SoonerPoll also showed a similar result, with their late October poll giving Russell a 49-37 edge. It’s unclear if the polls were just very off or if things changed dramatically in the final days as the spending increased. Either way, though, they obscured just how much trouble Russell was really in—and Horn was there to take advantage of it.

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