Oklahoma City—On the drive to Santa Fe South High School in Oklahoma City, I passed an oil-drilling rig by the side of the highway and a skyscraper with a cross projected on it in white lights. It wasn’t exactly a scene that screamed “Democratic district,” and yet a Democratic district it is, thanks to a fifth-generation Oklahoman (and, as she likes to point out, fourth-generation Girl Scout) named Kendra Horn.
Horn won her race for the state’s Fifth Congressional District, which includes Oklahoma City, in 2018, part of a historic wave of first-time Democratic congresswomen. She became the first Democrat to hold the seat since 1974 and the first Democratic woman ever elected to federal office from Oklahoma. Her campaign, in a district that Donald Trump won by 14 points in 2016, was considered such a long shot that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t even bother to monitor the results on Election Day. She was the only woman to flip a seat that wasn’t listed anywhere as flippable; with a 1.4 percentage point margin of victory, hers was a narrow but significant achievement.
The momentous nature of Horn’s win seems in inverse proportion to the amount of recognition she has received outside Oklahoma, at least compared with other Democrats who swept the House in November 2018. This is partly because she doesn’t court media attention and prefers to focus on the less flashy bread-and-butter issues facing her constituents. It’s also because Oklahoma isn’t generally a place that people look to for trends, particularly not of the Democratic politics variety.
After all, Oklahoma prides itself on being among the most conservative states in the country. In 2012, Republicans gained control of the state legislature, the governorship, and all seven of its seats in Congress. Democratic representation was whittled down to a mere sliver. From abortion and gun rulings to the 4,800-pound monument of the 10 Commandments that once existed at the statehouse, Oklahoma has passed right-wing legislation that would seem comically extreme if it weren’t affecting people in real life. Trump carried Oklahoma by more than 36 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016; it was one of just two states where not a single county went for her. Yet in this fortress of deep red, Horn saw an opportunity where few others did.
“It was really heartbreaking to see that a whole community didn’t have a voice,” she told me. “I saw a pathway and the potential to change the conversation. People think that if they’re in the minority, they might as well not show up, but a lot of really amazing things are happening here that get overlooked.”
Horn ran as a centrist, and that’s how she has functioned as a lawmaker. Once in office, she joined the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition. She’s an advocate for military spending and has said the best approach to border security “may include some form of a physical barrier.” She doesn’t support Medicare for All or proposals to raise the marginal tax rate on people earning more than $10 million a year.
Her approach doesn’t work everywhere, and it would be unwise to universalize centrism’s appeal. But Horn is meeting her voters where they are: in Oklahoma. And to them, how she won, why she won, and what it will take for her to keep her seat are questions that mean a great deal beyond their state’s borders.
“The entire Republican narrative in the state is that the Democrats are aligned with Satan and if we allow them to be in charge of things, we are all going to hell,” said Alyssa Fisher, the programs manager for Sally’s List, an organization that trains progressive women to run for office in Oklahoma. “This intense partisanship America is dealing with today? That was developed, curated, fostered, birthed here in Oklahoma. Listening to leaders like Kendra is the only way to make momentum in a world where other people genuinely believe your side is evil.”
With her shoulder-length blond hair, earnest intensity, strong work ethic, and love of civics, Horn, 43, has an air of wonky sincerity. She’s fascinated by anything that has to do with outer space and used to teach a yoga class, leading one constituent to mention her impressive ability to hold a squat “for like 30 minutes.”
Horn attended college at the University of Tulsa and graduated from Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas. She’s had a varied career, including stints as a lawyer, leading communications for the Space Foundation, and managing political campaigns in the state. In 2015 she served as the executive director of Sally’s List and helped found Women Lead Oklahoma, another organization dedicated to getting more women into politics. (In national rankings of women’s participation, Oklahoma is toward the bottom.)
As Horn was recruiting women to run and telling them why it mattered, it occurred to her to take her own advice.
In the spring of 2017, Horn started reaching out to her network to let them know she was running. Her opponent was the incumbent Republican, Steve Russell, who was elected to the House seat in 2014 after serving as a state senator. Russell didn’t put much energy into town halls or community outreach during his time in Congress. Just about everyone I spoke with described his time in office with some variation on “absent” and “lackluster.” Still, he had some strong electoral advantages in Oklahoma: He was a man, a Republican, and a veteran.
Horn “told me what she was considering, and I told her right away that she had about a 10 percent chance of winning,” said Ward Curtin, a political consultant and an old friend of Horn’s. “To be honest, I was just trying to be nice. She had a much smaller chance than that.”
Despite his doubts, Curtin agreed to manage her campaign. He started to feel slightly more optimistic after Horn’s campaign kickoff in July, when 350 people attended, a huge number for that type of event, and most weren’t from the usual roster of activists and political insiders. Drawing in people who were new to politics was essential, because there was no real progressive infrastructure in Oklahoma to plug into. Her campaign had to build a political organization and fundraising network practically from scratch without outside support. Before Election Day, he said, the most attention the race received was when her primary opponent was caught stealing Horn yard signs.
“We had all these establishment types kind of pat us on the head and say, ‘Bless your heart,’” Curtin recalled. “They didn’t buy in at the beginning, but Kendra is a force of nature. She got a lot of people on board.”
The notion of Democrats winning in Oklahoma didn’t always seem so far-fetched. For most of the state’s history, they were the dominant political party, but that shifted noticeably in the late 1980s as “a product of the Christian Right mobilization on behalf of the [GOP],” according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. The pendulum swung so far in the other direction that “Democrat” became a dirty word. Now in Oklahoma City, the pendulum might be swinging back.
“She represents a changing community,” said Jonathan Curtis, a college student who volunteered with Horn’s campaign. “People may doubt the Democrats in Oklahoma and think it’s a backward state, but it’s not. Oklahoma City is a magenta district, and people are willing to see change.”
Thanks to its greater population density and an influx of young people, Oklahoma City has become bluer, and its political representation is evolving accordingly. When I met Curtis over matcha lattes at a tea shop in Bricktown, he cited the crowd of thousands attending OKC Pride in 2018 and the election of James Cooper, the city’s first openly gay councilman, as examples of leftward movement. In 2015, Cyndi Munson—a young, single, biracial, progressive woman—won a state House seat in a special election for a district that overlaps Horn’s. Her campaign, too, was considered a long shot. In retrospect, Munson’s win turned out to be a bellwether.
Demographic shifts, along with a dissatisfaction with Republican policies, have helped create an environment in which voters are receptive to someone running under a Democratic label. Oklahoma’s huge teacher walkout two years ago, for instance, was a powerful catalyzing moment. Decades of tax cuts had gutted education funding, leading to four-day school weeks, crowded classrooms, and abysmal teacher pay. As a result of the low wages, Oklahoma struggled to recruit enough teachers, so it implemented an emergency certification program that allowed people to teach without formal training. Fed up with these policies and feeling ignored by politicians, 50,000 teachers from across the state swarmed the Capitol grounds in April 2018, causing schools to shut down for weeks.
“Voters knew that something was wrong with education,” Curtin said. “When we hit a breaking point and had the teacher walkout, it was clear that something had to be done. People at the state Capitol resisted that to a certain degree, and they paid the price at the ballot box.”
Horn participated in the walkout and earned the endorsement of the Oklahoma Education Association. Alicia Priest, the association’s president, said there was no doubt that Horn’s heart was with the public schools. After the walkout was over, teachers continued to flex their political muscle by mobilizing for Horn and other supportive candidates running in down-ballot races. They found voters receptive to what they had to say. The walkout led many people, including Republicans, to question the prevailing right-wing orthodoxy that says the lower the taxes, the better.
“The government’s emphasis on corporate tax welfare and not on public infrastructure has caused all our social services to suffer,” Priest continued. “[Horn’s] win was an acknowledgment of all the decades of failed policies and shows that the policies she’s running on are popular.”
By all accounts, Horn’s greatest political talent is finding common ground with people, even when they’re yelling at her. On December 8, I attended a town hall—Horn’s 11th of the year—in Santa Fe South’s cafeteria. According to the Oklahoma Free Press, Horn has held more town halls than her predecessor and the state’s two US senators held combined in the last 10 years.
The event was staffed by student volunteers. The walls were bright yellow, complementing Horn’s purple dress. A little over a week later, she would vote in favor of impeachment, but at the town hall, she said she hadn’t made up her mind. She opened the event by discussing what she’d accomplished, such as introducing a bill to limit prescription drug costs and another to protect tenants’ rights for military families.
Then she opened up the floor to questions—and the onslaught began.
A man named Phillip wanted to know whether what the media said was true, that Congress had no time for anything other than impeachment. Horn mentioned that her two House committees—Science, Space, and Technology and Armed Services—weren’t focused on impeachment and reiterated the pieces of legislation she’d put forward. A woman in sneakers and American flag socks asked how she, a conservative Republican, was being represented by Horn when she “voted 96 percent of the time with the Pelosi agenda” and was trying to impeach a “duly elected president who has done nothing wrong.” Horn responded by saying that many of those votes were procedural and that she’d pushed back against her party when she felt it was merited but that she also believes in Congress’s oversight responsibilities.
When Horn got a question about student loan debt, she seemed glad to have the opportunity to talk about a bill that would expunge a person’s adverse credit history related to federal student loans. When her questioners lobbed Fox News talking points at her, she stressed the importance of talking with people who don’t have the same political beliefs. She consistently brought her answers around to her specific legislative achievements and thanked the attendees for their questions.
“I’m troubled by how we like to put people in boxes and give them labels,” Horn said. “What has caused the biggest wedge is the idea that some places are beyond hope or help. We’ve got to stop writing people off and talk to each other.”
The belief that slowing down, looking people in the eye, and having civil conversations could remedy the entrenched partisan environment we find ourselves in could seem naive and Pollyannaish in, say, Washington DC, but it definitely played a part in getting Horn elected. Of course, there are people in her district who would like her to be less cautious and more unabashedly progressive, but most of her constituents—even those who support more progressive positions—say that, electorally, that would have been a nonstarter.
Adrienne Elder, 42, works in public health. She is registered as a Democrat but describes herself as moderate and as someone who was never very much involved with politics. Early in the campaign, Elder attended a party for Horn and felt something click. Even Elder’s friends who voted for Trump seemed open to what Horn had to say. “She talked a lot about finding middle ground and working across the aisle and doing what’s right for our state and country,” Elder said. “Well, that’s what I obviously want to hear, and I want to support a candidate that will actually do that.”
From the beginning, Horn sensed that many voters in Oklahoma City were just fed up with partisan bickering and stalemate. So she stayed focused on health care and education and ran a well-organized campaign as a pragmatist and problem solver, someone committed to bipartisanship. It helped that her opponent had apparently grown complacent.
“I think she had a bit of a perfect storm,” said Michael Crespin, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and the director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. “It wasn’t a progressive campaign. She’s very much a moderate, centrist Democrat. Those folks tend to work on bread-and-butter issues, as opposed to ideological ones. I think that’s how you’re successful in her position.”
Horn’s philosophy and her success rest on the idea that the way to pick up more seats in the state, at all levels of government, is by recognizing that most voters espouse views closer to the middle. This idea rankles the country’s insurgent leftists, who, for their part, can hold up a powerful counterexample: At the time of this writing, Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, is leading many of the polls for the Democratic presidential primaries.
Horn attributes much of this energy to the media’s obsession with politicians like members of “the Squad”—Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—who are more celebrated yet at the same time more polarizing. Horn contends that this split unfairly casts the middle as a road to nowhere but that, far from being a weak, indecisive position, it’s much harder to be a moderate today than to spread splashy mediagenic slogans such as “Abolish ICE.”
“I think there’s a misperception that if you’re not extreme, you’re not standing up for things,” she said. “The way that we consume [media] now, it drives these people who are the flamethrowers, who are going to say the most outlandish things, who can speak to one constituency.”
She added, “Most of us live somewhere a little left of center, a little right of center.”
Horn’s win in 2018 was widely heralded as a surprise and an upset; Russell and the rest of the state’s Republicans didn’t see her coming. That won’t be the case in 2020. According to Chad Alexander, a conservative radio host in Oklahoma, OK-05 is now one of the top seats in the country that Republicans are targeting to take back. Eleven Republicans have announced that they intend to challenge her, including a slew of qualified female candidates. Anti-Horn TV ads, funded by Republican PACs, are playing nonstop. Any advantage she has in running as an incumbent is tempered by the aggressive opposition she faces.
While Republicans are fired up, so are Democrats, who don’t want their hard-fought win reduced to a one-term fluke. In the third quarter of 2019, Horn raised $524,733—far more than any of the Republicans vying for her seat. Democrats may be the minority in Oklahoma, but they finally have a toehold. The question remains whether they can keep it or even expand it. Horn has always known that her seat would never feel secure, that every election cycle would require tremendous effort, and that as soon as she stopped navigating her way through the slippery center, she’d lose.
“On election night, I told her the reelect would be harder than the first one,” Curtin said, referring to Horn’s upcoming campaign, “and that it would be the hardest in the nation. I’m not a real cheery guy, as you can tell.”
Horn’s win, on the one hand, was an exception because although her district is more conservative than most, she was able to win it with an effective moderate campaign. On the other, when it comes to individual congressional races, Horn could wind up being the rule. The toss-up states that Democrats need to win to take back the White House in 2020 are Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, according to an analysis from US News & World Report. Trump won all of those states in 2016, and not one is labeled leaning, likely, or safely Democratic this year. Michigan, which played an outsize role in the last presidential election, is currently leaning Democratic but looks far from a clear win. The Democrats who have flipped seats in those states—like Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Representative Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, and Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan—all won by running as moderates and, in Arizona and Michigan, beating out more progressive rivals in their Democratic primaries.
It’s undeniable that ideas like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a wealth tax, and tuition-free public college have helped awaken a Democratic base that is engaged, excited, and willing to fight. Centrism may resonate with older voters in some districts, even though in the broader picture, progressive ideals are mobilizing people in a way that’s needed to defeat Trump. Horn and Oklahoma are not barometers for the country as a whole, but they do show that change can happen in the unlikeliest of places.