- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Oklahoma voters bucked the national trend for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in presidential primaries, handing victories instead to their challengers on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Republicans in Oklahoma chose conservative Sen. Ted Cruz from neighboring Texas, and Democrats went with self-described democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

While former secretary of state Clinton and billionaire businessman Trump swept most other Super Tuesday primaries and appeared headed for a general election showdown in November, both stumbled in Oklahoma.

Cruz leveraged support from evangelical Christians for his GOP victory while Sanders tapped into the state’s deep populist roots with his message of wealth inequality.

“Oklahoma has often been there for non-status quo candidates,” said University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie.

Exit poll interviews with voters in Oklahoma showed a large majority of Republicans identified as born-again Christian and almost 4 in 10 of them voted for Cruz, according to preliminary results of the survey conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks.

Gerald Lee, an unemployed 47-year-old from Moore, said he considered Trump, but ended up voting for Cruz because he said he believed the Texas senator was a man of faith.

“I think he’ll hold on to his convictions,” Lee said. “No one in (Washington) D.C. backs him. To me, that’s a good thing.”

Among Democrats, Sanders returned to Oklahoma last weekend for his second rally in as many weeks, hoping to take advantage of registered independents allowed to vote in the Democratic primary for the first time in state history.

Registered independents had previously been barred from primary elections. That changed last year, when the Oklahoma Democratic Party changed its rules, hoping to give the fastest growing segment of the electorate more of a say in narrowing the field of candidates.

Austin Madden, 27, said he switched his registration from Republican to Democrat to vote for Sanders because he believes Sanders’ message of protecting the middle- and working-class resonates with him.

“Mainly, he speaks to our generation and the values we hold, like helping fellow mankind,” said Madden, who stopped by his polling station between jobs as an accountant and a pharmacy technician.

There is the added dynamic of Oklahoma’s history that Gaddie said includes a unique combination of two styles of populism - Southern agrarian populism with a more anti-corporate populism from the Plains.

“It really made Oklahoma a fertile ground for the kind of message Sanders was pitching,” Gaddie said.

In a nine-candidate Republican primary to become Tulsa County’s next sheriff, Vic Regalado was the top vote-getter and will move to the April 5 special election against Democrat Rex Berry.

The job became open when Sheriff Stanley Glanz resigned last November, two months after a grand jury indicted him for failing to release an internal report about his agency.

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