Anna Langthorn, the new chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, is only 24 years old — and that might be all you know about her based on national coverage of her successful campaign for the position in May.
But since Langthorn has taken office, Democrats in Oklahoma flipped two state legislative seats in special elections, and over the past two months she’s begun the work of rebuilding the Democratic Party in a state in which Donald Trump won all 77 counties and the state overall by 36 points.
The special elections that Democrats won weren’t exactly normal ones. Both involved the resignation of the Republican in office; one was facing sexual harassment claims, and the other was facing three felony counts of solicitation of a 17-year-old boy. It remains to be seen how the party will fare in more typical elections. But while it’s an uphill battle for Langthorn and her party — the state won’t be turning blue anytime soon — these wins have given Oklahoma Democrats some hope.
Langthorn volunteered on her first gubernatorial campaign at the age of 17. Two years later she was elected the president of the state’s Young Democrats, the youngest president in the country at the time. She’s worked professionally on races of every type in Oklahoma: legislative, gubernatorial, or tribal. Most recently, she was a junior partner at SkyFire Media, a political advertising and consulting firm.
A young politico like Langthorn might’ve given up when she saw Trump’s overwhelming victory during the 2016 election or the Republican supermajority in the state legislature and offices. Many liberal young people move away from more conservative, rural places like Oklahoma — but Langthorn didn’t.
“I want to do the work where it's really needed,” she says. Oklahomans, she says, “deserve it just as much as somebody else in a state where it would be easier for me to work. That's why I'm here, because those people deserve advocates too.”
I spoke to Langthorn after her first two months in office. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
You've had a chance to actually be in the job for a bit, a chance to get on the ground. What has that work looked like, whether in terms of reorganizing the party or making other changes?
Every day is a different day. I've got committees that I've got to appoint people to. I've got candidates that I have to work with. We're in a weird position where we've got six — well, we'll have a total of seven special elections in the year 2017, so far. We have four more remaining.
Those are things that I hadn't necessarily, when I started running or started thinking about running in February ... anticipated happening. I thought I was going to have a year to build infrastructure, and we've got a year full of — you know, our last special election is November 14. So we've got elections this year that we're helping candidates with. We hired two field organizers.
Looking past 2017, I noticed that the Oklahoman had reported last week that only four Democrats had filed for some of the 2018 statewide elections versus a larger slew of Republican candidates. What do recruitment efforts look like either for those state offices now or even for national offices?
We're in the process of going through the list and seeing where we've got potential candidates, where we need to find potential candidates, and setting up meetings to have those conversations. I felt like that Oklahoman article kind of jumped the gun, because in terms of filing, filing doesn't happen until April of 2018. So really, what they mean is candidates that have signed up with the ethics commission to say that they are fundraising.
We intend to have a full slate of statewide candidates. We know we'll never have the number of candidates that the Republican Party has, but I don't really think that's news because we're in a supermajority Republican state. So they're gonna have busy primaries and that's okay, because it's going to give our candidates more time to talk to general election voters and really solidify their message.
The state hasn't gone blue in a presidential election since 1964, but as recently as 2010, Oklahoma had a very popular Democratic governor of Oklahoma in Brad Henry. What are some of the seats or races that you think are going to be the best targets for 2018?
I definitely think that in 2018, we have a real shot at taking the governor's seat. [Editor’s note: A Morning Consult poll from April to July said Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Mary Fallin had a disapproval rating of 51 percent, making her one of the 10 least popular governors in the country.]
Like you said, we had a Democratic governor as recently as 2010, and we've always had a big division between national politics and local politics when it comes to the Democratic Party in Oklahoma. We tend to be more successful locally than we do federally. I think we can win the governor's seat and I think we can make our legislature veto-proof, which requires us getting more than one-third of the state house, which I think we would be able to do. Those are our big top goals.
Let’s talk about your recent successes: the 44th District and 75 District. Do you see those wins for Democrats at the state level as indicating a potential trend for Democrats moving forward, or do you think it will be a different ballgame when you're running in a primary and a general election in 2018?
Somewhere in between the two options you're giving me. You can't deny that there is a different dynamic when you're talking about special elections, but I do think they are generally reflective of the sentiment of Oklahoma voters.
Then going into 2018, we have already started having this conversation, and it’s a conversation that's gonna be focused on Oklahoma politics, not necessarily national politics — about the fact that we're in the midst of a budget crisis, in the midst of an education crisis, in the midst of a health care crisis, and that our economy, particularly in rural Oklahoma, is not doing as well as Republicans like to pretend it is.
What makes Oklahoma Democrats unique from the national Democratic organization or even from other Democratic state parties?
In terms of what makes us unique, we've got more federally recognized tribes than any other state. We have probably the largest Native American population, I think. I could be slightly wrong, but we are definitely up there on the list in terms of the number of federally recognized tribes and the percentage of our population, because it is about 10 percent of our population that is native — and that's substantially larger than most other places, keeping in mind that those are sovereign nations within the boundaries of Oklahoma. So that makes our conversation a little bit different a lot of the time.
People don't realize that Oklahoma was a solidly Democratic state, a blue state, into my lifetime. It wasn't that long ago, the early '90s and really the early 2000s, that we lost control of the legislature — I frequently say, and I might get in trouble for saying this, at our own fault.
It was the fault of the Democratic Party that things changed in Oklahoma. I don't know if that makes us super unique because I know there are other states that are dealing with that, but it has sometimes surprised people how far the pendulum can swing and how quickly memories can fade.