OKLAHOMA CITY — Republican state Sen. Nancy Riley, complaining there is no room in her party for moderates, switched to the Democratic Party Thursday and threw a new obstacle at GOP hopes of taking control of the Senate for the first time in state history.
Riley, flanked by a half dozen Democratic Senate leaders, announced her change in party allegiance while criticizing Senate Republicans for what she said was their "lack of compassion for people" and for ignoring her and other political moderates.
"The moderate Republican has been pushed aside for the extreme right wing," Riley said. Riley, a member of the Senate’s GOP leadership team who holds the title of minority whip, said she has received no support among Republicans in the state Senate.
"The treatment I received in the last legislative session was abhorrent," she said, adding that her focus in the Senate has been "on families, children and the average Oklahoman."
"I was totally disregarded," Riley said. "The moderate Republican no longer has a voice."
She said her shabby treatment was in part because she is a woman.
"We’re supposed to be the cheerleaders and not be serious-minded," Riley said. "A pat on the head and a roll of the eyes is basically what I’ve gotten over the last four years."
The Senate’s GOP leader, Sen. Glenn Coffee of Oklahoma City, expressed disappointment at Riley’s switch and accepted responsibility for any breakdowns in communication that may have led to it.
"On a few occasions she and I did have conversations about her frustration," said Coffee, adding that they never discussed her plan to join the Democratic Party.
"I think it’s important that every members’ voice be heard," Coffee said. "We have a very diverse group. We don’t always vote the same way."
Riley, of Sand Springs, said Senate GOP leaders have said "we’d rather be in the majority rather than be right" and "it’s all about making the other side look bad" while developing strategy.
"Sen. Riley and I have very different recollections," said Coffee, who accused Democrats of being obstructionists and blocking GOP initiatives like lawsuit reform.
"This is about ideas," Coffee said. "It’s about moving the state forward."
Riley’s switch strengthens the Democrats’ tenuous hold on the Senate. Democrats held a 25-23 majority before Riley came on board and will control the body 26-22 going into the pivotal fall elections. Republicans took control of the state House in 2004 for the first time in more than 80 years.
Riley, a former teacher, is in the middle of her second four-year term in the Senate and does not face re-election this year. She was re-elected in 2004 with more than 66 percent of the vote.
Coffee said Republicans probably will recruit a candidate to run against her in 2008.
Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, said Riley’s action is a harbinger of a strong Democratic year at the polls. He predicted that Democrat Gov. Brad Henry will be re-elected and that other Democrats will be swept into office on Henry’s coattails.
"This potentially has a profound effect on this election cycle," Morgan said. "There is momentum mounting here. There is a shift.
"We see the pendulum swinging back in Oklahoma."
The head of the state Democratic Party, Lisa Pryor, said Riley’s defection indicates growing dissatisfaction with Republican leadership.
"Their extreme right wing agenda is increasingly out of step with regular Oklahomans," Pryor said. "Right wing Republican politicians are proving time and time again they cannot be trusted to govern."
State Republican Party leader Tom Daxon said moderates have a voice in the party. "We certainly have people of a lot of different viewpoints," Daxon said.
State GOP vice chairman Dana Murphy said Riley’s comments were offensive to Republican women who hold key offices in the state, including Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, a candidate for the 5th Congressional District.
Riley surprised many when she received 23 percent of the vote in last week’s statewide Republican primary for lieutenant governor. She said she spent only $40,000 on the race.
"The moderate Republicans thought I was the alternative vote," she said.
Her strength forced a runoff between House Speaker Todd Hiett of Kellyville, who received 43 percent, and state Sen. Scott Pruitt of Broken Arrow, 34 percent.
Riley said she approached Morgan about switching parties in June, after she had filed as a candidate in the GOP primary but before the July 25 election. She was uncertain if she would have gone ahead with the party switch if she had won.
"That’s a question we’ll never have an answer to," Riley said.