OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A political newcomer buoyed by tea party enthusiasm and a fierce assault on his opponent's record knocked off a five-term incumbent congressman from Tulsa to become Oklahoma's top political story of 2012.
In a hard-fought Republican primary, Jim Bridenstine, a 37-year-old Navy pilot and former director of a Tulsa space museum, hammered U.S. Rep. John Sullivan as an out-of-touch career politician who lacked the necessary conservative credentials. Bridenstine's campaign strategy paid off as he earned 54 percent of the vote over Sullivan in the June primary and then coasted to a general election victory in November.
"This one really snuck up on everybody," said Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. "No one saw it coming until about five days before it happened. And when it did happen, it was a huge upset."
Republicans continued to flex their muscle in November's general election, capturing the lone Democrat-held seat in the state's congressional delegation when Westville plumber Markwayne Mullin defeated prosecutor Rob Wallace in the race for the open 2nd Congressional District in eastern Oklahoma. The GOP now controls both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature, every statewide elected office, both U.S. Senate seats and all five U.S. House seats for the first time in state history.
Despite those advantages, Republican lawmakers couldn't reach an agreement on Gov. Mary Fallin's ambitious proposal to slash the state's income tax. In her State of the State address to lawmakers in February, Fallin laid out what she described as a "game-changer" for Oklahoma, a plan to cut the top income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 3.5 percent, beginning in 2013.
But rank-and-file members balked at the elimination of dozens of tax credits and exemptions that Fallin proposed to offset much of the lost revenue, and a last-minute deal for a compromise tax cut fell apart in the waning days of the session.
Fallin also delivered big news in November when she announced Oklahoma would not establish a state-run health insurance exchange under the federal health care law or expand Medicaid eligibility to provide coverage to thousands of low-income, uninsured citizens. Fallin's decision was hailed by tea party activists and other conservatives who bitterly opposed the federal law, but decried by hospital officials and other health care providers who are being forced to absorb the costs of the nearly 20 percent of uninsured Oklahomans who often seek health care services at emergency rooms and are unable to pay.
Oklahoma's conservative lawmakers continued to push for further restrictions on abortion, while the courts continued to shoot down many of the proposals. A so-called "personhood" bill that would have granted fertilized human eggs the same rights and status as Oklahoma citizens easily cleared the Senate but was derailed in the Oklahoma House. A separate proposal to place a personhood initiative before Oklahoma voters was struck down by the state Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
In December, the state's highest court also struck down as unconstitutional two other abortion laws — one requiring women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound image placed in front of them while they hear a description of the fetus and another banning off-label use of certain abortion-inducing drugs.
"I think that women's reproductive rights were protected, largely by the courts, but also by the refusal to hear the personhood bill in the House," said Martha Skeeters, director of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, which opposed many of the anti-abortion measures.
Oklahoma's reputation as one of the most conservative states in the country made it an appealing destination for Republican presidential hopefuls, with Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney all making stops in the Sooner State during the race for the GOP nomination in 2012. Santorum ultimately won Oklahoma's presidential primary election in March with 34 percent of the vote, followed by Romney with 28 percent and Gingrich with 27 percent.
Oklahoma's conservative nature even spilled over into the Democratic primary, with President Barack Obama capturing only 57 percent of the Democratic vote in the state against three lesser-known candidates with little or no financial backing.
The outcome of November's general election in Oklahoma was no surprise, with 67 percent of the vote going for Romney. Just as in 2008, Obama failed to win a single one of the state's 77 counties. Oklahoma voters in November also approved a ban on affirmative action programs in state government, an overhaul of the state's Department of Human Services, and a measure to remove the governor from the parole process.
Despite his poor showing in the March presidential primary, Obama paid his first visit as president to Oklahoma later that month, announcing at a pipe yard near Cushing that he planned to expedite the approval of the southern leg of a giant pipeline and embracing an "all-of-the-above" domestic energy strategy.
Oklahoma also saw several high-profile leaders step down in 2012, beginning with Howard Hendrick, the longtime DHS director who announced in January that he planned to leave the embattled agency. DHS had come under fire after the high-profile deaths of several children in its care, which led lawmakers in 2012 to invest more money into the agency and change the way it is governed.
In December, Secretary of State Glenn Coffee and longtime Oklahoma Department of Transportation Commissioner Gary Ridley both announced plans to step down.
Oklahoma also lost a political legend in 2012 with the passing in July of former state Sen. Gene Stipe, a "man of the people" whose nearly half-century tenure in the Oklahoma Legislature ended amid a congressional campaign finance scandal and a series of legal trouble. Stipe, who was 85, died after a long illness at his home in McAlester.
Stipe, a Democrat, was elected to the state Senate in 1957 and remained in that role until 2003, giving him the longest continuous run as a state senator in U.S. history.
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy