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Oklahoma Journeys

State's First Republican, Governor, 1963


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This week on Oklahoma Journeys, a blue state turning red. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907 it began a decades-long streak of loyalty to the Democratic Party. Things changed, however, with the gubernatorial election of 1962, and that's the topic of this week's Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

Recent national elections seems to make especially clear the political differences between the various states dividing all fifty into either the red (Republican) or blue (Democrat) camps. Oklahoma in recent elections has landed squarely and unequivocally in the red sector and has done so for a number of years, but that wasn't always the case. In fact, when it comes to being a red or blue state, Oklahoma has been somewhat of a flip-flopper.

As a territory between 1890 and October 1907 Oklahoma was under the direct control of the U.S. president. The president appointed the territorial governor and the governor then appointed most of the other high-level territorial officials. So a Republican president would naturally mean a Republican territorial governor and so on down the line. With the coming of statehood in November of 1907 the appointive power of the president was removed and the new state immediately flipped to the blue zone becoming a democratic state thereby taking its place among the other states of the solidly democratic south.

Over the next fifty-five years Republicans in Oklahoma endured their position as a remotely distant, almost, inconsequential political force. Democrats controlled the state, ran the state, and seemed to be front-runners in every election. Only for a brief time in the 19-teens was the Democrat's control of the state challenged, and that was by the Socialist party. How then could a comparatively inexperienced wheat farmer from the town of Billings completely change the political landscape of the state?

That's what many people were asking in this week of 1963 when Henry Bellmon became the state's first Republican governor. The election turn-around caused Democrat leaders of the state to hold a mock funeral for the Democratic Party while almost at the same time actual elephants, the mascot of the Republicans, ran loose in downtown Oklahoma City. The reasons for such chaos lay in the fortuitous alignment of events as well as the slow but steady shifting of attitudes among the residents of Oklahoma. During the 1962 gubernatorial race, the Democrats were facing an uphill battle. The reputation of some leading Democrats was tarnished from scandal and questionable behavior while the Democratic candidate for Governor had made enemies of a powerful newspaper editor in Oklahoma City. The result was that on January 14, 1963, Oklahoma, for the first time in 55 years, was once again under a Republican leader. Although almost every other election in the state that year went Democrat, the tide was turning fast for Republicans and they became a dominant force in Oklahoma politics. It was on January 14, 1963, that Henry Bellmon became the first Republican governor of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma's political records are a fascinating blend of the mundane, inane, courageous, and outrageous, and they're all available to you at the Research Library of the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.