OKLAHOMA CITY — A Democratic attorney tapped into a network of enthusiastic women and young people in an increasingly diverse capital city to pull off one of the midterm elections' biggest upsets, snatching a congressional seat in deep-red Oklahoma that had been in Republican hands for four decades.
Tuesday's victory by Kendra Horn, 42, over retired Army officer and GOP Rep. Steve Russell capped a historic night for female candidates who ran for office, and won, in record numbers across the U.S.
Horn became only the third woman ever elected to Congress from Oklahoma, a state that ranks among the lowest in the nation for women in elective office. But Tuesday saw a dramatic turnaround, especially in Oklahoma City, where women won races up and down the ballot.
"We've suffered, I think, as a state and as a city from just a vacuum of female viewpoints at the decision-making table, and it changed big time last night," said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, a Republican. "You'll have inspiring women wearing judge's robes, sitting in county commission and city council meetings, serving in our Legislature, and now representing us in Congress, and it all just happened in one fell swoop."
As of Wednesday, voters were on track to send at least 100 women to the U.S. House, surpassing the previous record of 84.
Horn, who previously headed two nonprofits that recruit and train female candidates to run for office, focused her messaging on health care and criticized Russell for voting against a requirement that insurance cover people with pre-existing conditions.
Rather than talk about President Donald Trump or hot-button issues like abortion or immigration, Horn emphasized her support for public schools, an important issue in Oklahoma following a teacher walkout in the spring, and linked Russell, a former state senator, to the state's recent budget problems.
"We focused on talking to people across the 5th District about things that were important to them," Horn said. "And over and over again, we heard their concerns about health care and education, and that's what we talked to people about."
Horn said that throughout her campaign, she was approached by enthusiastic women and young people eager to help, a fact that struck her at her watch party Tuesday night.
"I looked around the room and we had this amazing group of young people of different races and ethnic backgrounds. We had women and people who had not previously been engaged, and that's what is really exciting," she said. "We have a delegation that looks a little bit more like our overall community now."
Horn outraised Russell, amassing more than $1 million to his $850,000, according to the latest reports from the Federal Election Commission. Her campaign also got a last-minute boost from a federal super PAC created by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who supports gun control. FEC records show the group spent about $430,000 on ads in support of Horn. Such political action committees can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as expenditures aren't coordinated with a candidate.
Russell, who was seeking a third term in office, couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday, but a top campaign adviser said Russell's refusal to launch advertising critical of Horn may have cost him the race.
"He did not want to go negative. I told him you have to or you could lose this election," said Russell campaign adviser J.D. Johannes, who said internal polling showed the race tightening in the weeks before the election. "And he looked at me and said: I'm not going to be a part of that."