On Tuesday, bucking all odds, Democrat Allison Ikley-Freeman flipped an Oklahoma Senate seat by just 31 votes in a special election. The 26-year-old lesbian woman, who currently works for a non-profit mental health agency in Tulsa, had never run for office before and seemed an unlikely winner in deeply conservative Oklahoma. But her message resonated with Oklahoma voters — as did her roots in the community.
"She was deeply involved in her community and, after the 2016 election, felt more compelled to get involved with the party and this opportunity came up and she jumped at it," says Anna Langthorn, chair and executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic party.
"Allison got out there and spoke to voters directly and had a huge volunteer presence behind her," Langthorn says. "She was knocking on doors, and had 20-30 volunteers knocking on doors, as well."
Ikley-Freeman is the third openly gay person to be elected to the Oklahoma legislature, following Sen. Al McAffrey, who was elected to the House in 2006 and as state senator in 2012. Rep. Kay Floyd was elected in 2012.
In a statement provided to Bustle, Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called the victory "hugely encouraging," particularly as it took place in a deeply red state: "The fact that these victories are coming in conservative places like Virginia and Oklahoma is even more encouraging. LGBT people are part of every single community. They are stepping up like never before to participate and contribute, and the public is responding favorably.”
In 2016, Democrats invested heavily into taking the seat back from incumbent State Sen. Dan Newberry, a Republican, but wound up losing by 15 percentage points. This year was a little different: Newberry announced he would be stepping down come January 2018 and, as with most special elections, voter turnout was low.
Still, while Republicans have dominated state politics in recent years, Oklahoma has seen Democrats pick up four seats in special elections this year — including, now, Ikley-Freeman's election.
She also had a few big names pulling for her — including former presidential candidate Martin O'Malley, who stumped for Ikley-Freeman earlier this month.
Ikley-Freeman had been involved in politics in the past, though only on the fringes. She volunteered for the successful campaign of Rep. Karen Gaddis, who scored a surprise July victory when she flipped a House seat long-held by the GOP.
Ikley-Freeman's campaign manager Sara Baker admits that their team had been prepared for a loss, just based on the fact that the District is a challenge for Democrats. But what she calls the "complete dysfunction" at the state level (largely due to issues with the state budget) helped push Ikley-Freeman over the finish line.
"Allison was out-raised almost three-to-one, dollar wise," Baker says. "We had to use our money wisely and get out there and engage with voters."
The campaign's focus on health care and public education, Baker notes, resonated the most. "We have no money for public schools, teachers leaving en masse, schools going to four-day school weeks and discussions of consolidating schools within districts," she says. "So, first and foremost, people in Oklahoma want to have access to quality education and health care. That's what she's going to fight for."
Ikley-Freeman ran on a platform of access to quality public education, health care, and mental health. Her opponent Brian O'Hara's platform included "protecting the unborn" and "protecting the Second Amendment," along with improving education and focusing on the economy.
According to Oklahoma political reporter Justin Wingerter, Ikley-Freeman's victory marked the first time a Democrat had won an Oklahoma Senate District 37 race since 1996.
Though many recent Democratic victories have been seen as rebukes of the Trump Administration and its policies, Langthorn says that isn't necessarily the case in Oklahoma.
"I think that, unlike in other places in the country, recent victories aren't necessarily a product of anti-Trump sentiment," Langthorn says. "Right now, in Oklahoma, Republicans have power up and down the ticket and that is really failing voters. Basic core services — health care, education — are failing because of the failures of Republican leadership. These special elections offer us the opportunity to change that."
Based on data from previous elections (which showed more Republicans voting than Democrats, even in instances when Democrats won), Langthorn believes some Trump supporters are likely voting outside party lines in the state's special elections. Ikley-Freeman is expected to be sworn in in February 2018.