OKMULGEE, Okla. — In a year when Republicans are buoyed by historic trends and poised to eventually regain control of Congress, Democrats see a silver lining in an unlikely place: the gubernatorial race in deep-red Oklahoma.
Kevin Stitt, the hard-nosed incumbent Republican, is plagued by a series of scandals and faces a tough challenge from the state’s school superintendent, a Republican-turned-Democrat named Joy Hofmeister.
“It’s a real contest,” said Pat McFerron, a veteran Republican pollster in the state.
In a state where Donald Trump won 65% of the vote and won all 77 counties, Stitt had to get last-minute help from the Republican Governors Association, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). He also loaned his campaign $1.9 million of his own money.
By contrast, Hofmeister has received unprecedented joint endorsement from the five largest tribal nations of the state’s 39 federally recognized tribes, seen polls that show his “aggressively moderate” message can work and grabbed the approval of former Oklahoma congressman and football star Sooner JC Watts, a Republican.
She also harnessed the energy and money of two key constituencies that have long had Stitt in their sights: many of the state’s Native American tribes and the state’s teachers.
“I want to see actions that lead to the best optimal outcomes, and you need to have collaborative leadership to achieve that. And this governor is incapable,” Hofmeister told HuffPost.
“I am a bridge builder. It’s a deck burner.
“I don’t think you have anyone, an incumbent governor, looking in their own pocket if that’s not a legitimate concern about the outcome.”
– Pat McFerron, veteran Oklahoma pollster
Polls on the race have been spotty, showing either big Stitt leads or narrow Hofmeister advantages. The most recent and reputable poll, conducted by Emerson College, put Stitt up from 52% to 43%. Another poll, released Wednesday by an Oklahoma City television stationhowever, showed Stitt with only 1 point leadwithin the margin of error.
McFerron pointed to Stitt’s personal loan as proof of the race’s competitiveness.
“I don’t think you have anybody, an incumbent governor, looking inside their own pocket if that’s not a legitimate concern about the outcome,” he said.
Candidates “radically different” in education
Hofmeister presented herself as a reluctant warrior, only switching parties after Stitt “hijacked” the Republican Party and, she said, became too politically confrontational.
At the top of this list is education. Stitt’s support for a 2021 school voucher bill that the state’s largest teachers’ union says would mean the closure of many rural schools, combined with Hofmeister’s experience in elementary education , has made Hofmeister the obvious choice for teachers.
To help deal with the backlash from the voucher scheme, Stitt posted a video on Twitter on Oct. 27 touting his support for rural schools.
“Let me be clear – I will do nothing to harm our rural communities, our rural schools and our way of life,” Stitt said. say straight to the camera in the video. “I will defend our way of life, our rural communities, as I have for the past four years.
With nearly 4 million residents, Oklahoma has 509 separate school districts, each with its own cadre of teachers, administrators, and support staff. And, according to the head of the state’s largest teachers’ union, they are eager to vote out Stitt.
“Our two candidates are radically different,” said Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, which has 18,000 members.
“We have one who is a champion of public schools and wants to make sure we do everything to make sure public schools are a basic service and get everything they need. And then you have another candidate who wants to set up all sorts of voucher systems to dismantle our public schools.
Despite a surge in support in 2018 prompted by teacher departures, Bishop said Oklahoma schools are still digging a deep financial hole. The National Education Association ranked Oklahoma 34th in teacher salaries and 45th in spending per student in its most recent ranking.
During a debate in Oklahoma City, Stitt said he had invested more money in education than any former governor and “I’m going to stand up for parents instead of big unions.”
Unite the tribes – in opposition
Aside from the teachers, the other big group upset by Stitt are the state’s tribal nations. Stitt got off to a bad start with them when he proposed to unilaterally renegotiate the state-tribes gambling revenue compact to increase the state’s share. Citing tribal sovereignty, the tribes sued Oklahoma, where they ultimately won.
It was the start of an ongoing series of fights, the most important of which went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In 2020, the court, led by Judge Neil Gorsuch, said Congress failed to dissolve the reservations of several large tribes on the east side of the state when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and therefore remained legally intact.
The victory was considered the greatest victory for the indigenous peoples at court in decades.
But after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the five voices for the tribes, Stitt succeeded in obtaining the court to reverse on much of the so-called McGirt decision regarding state prosecution of crimes on Indigenous lands.
“I am a bridge builder. It’s a deck burner.
– Joy Hofmeister, Democratic candidate for Governor of Oklahoma
The chiefs of the state’s five largest tribes – the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, Chickasaw and Great Seminole Nations – endorsed Hofmeister on October 11. It was the first time the tribes had jointly approved a candidate state and could mark a new, more aggressive stance by tribal governments.
McFerron said the tribes have been active in state politics for much of the state’s history (the presence of the tribes predates the state by nearly 100 years), but that they were further forward now.
Medicaid votes on a model?
Stitt, whose campaign did not respond to interview requests, also suffered a series of self-inflicted political wounds in the form of scandals that led to corruption charges.
However, all of that may not be enough to help voters get past the “D” next to Hofmeister’s name on the ballot.
“Oklahoma is a very deep red. It’s hard to exist in blue here,” nail salon owner Sarah Embrey-Wellinghoff, a 29-year-old freelancer from Okmulgee, told HuffPost.
On the other hand, a successful statewide vote in 2020 to expand Medicaid could pave the way for Hofmeister. This expansion materialized with a margin of approximately 6,500 votes out of approximately 667,000 votes.
He only won in seven of the state’s 77 counties, but they included the most populous and those with large college or tribal presences. More importantly, proponents of expansion avoided getting totally blown up in rural counties, allowing big margins but not so big that votes in denser counties couldn’t offset them.
One of those rural places that Hofmeister will try to squeeze Stitt’s margin of victory is in Okmulgee County, about 30 minutes south of Tulsa.
Just 15 minutes south of Henryetta, Gwen Kearns, an 87-year-old registered nurse, said she won’t vote for Hofmeister, even though she doesn’t like Stitt.
“She’s a Democrat. Is there anything else?” she said. “I don’t particularly like women in political office, being a woman.”
Embrey-Wellinghoff, the owner of the nail salon, said she wouldn’t be too disappointed if Hofmeister lost. But she said Liberals like her had to vote.
“The more Democrats who vote, the more they can be like, ‘Wow, the tide might change, people might actually change or something,'” she said.
“While if you’re sitting at home and you think red is going to win anyway so there’s nothing I can do about it, you still have to vote to show it’s closer than the people – hopefully – the – don’t think so.”