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GOP looks to avoid upset in Oklahoma governor’s race

Republicans are looking to avert an upset in Oklahoma’s gubernatorial race as polls show a closer-than-expected contest less than three weeks out from Election Day.

Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) has seen the gap in recent surveys close between him and opponent Joy Hofmeister, who’s aiming to become the first Democrat elected to statewide office in the Sooner State since 2006.

In a sign of how the dynamic has shifted, the Republican Governors Association (RGA) launched a major ad buy in the state this week attacking Hofmeister.

“That the RGA’s out there with a million dollars three weeks out tells you that their polling is showing what everything else is showing,” said Chad Alexander, a former chair of the state Republican Party and GOP consultant. “I don’t think they would spend a million dollars for no reason.”

Hofmeister has served as the state’s superintendent of public instruction since 2015. She was elected to the position twice as a Republican but changed her party registration to Democrat last year.

One poll showed Hofmeister leading by 7 points, and multiple surveys have shown the candidates locked in a tight race within the margin of error.

Republicans acknowledged the race appears headed for a photo finish, but they expect Stitt to pull through.

Stitt’s campaign told The Hill in a statement that the governor will win the race because of key differences between the candidates. An ad from the campaign and the one from the RGA seek to tie Hofmeister to President Biden and claim both support gas tax increases as supply issues remain, which would cost Oklahoma jobs.

“Kevin Stitt is going to win this race because Oklahomans know Kevin Stitt is fighting for them, cutting taxes, balancing the budget, and funding pay increases for every teacher, while his Democratic opponent supports tax increases and marches in lock-step with Joe Biden’s liberal agenda that’s threatening Oklahoma,” said Donelle Harder, Stitt’s campaign manager.

The RGA similarly sought to tie Hofmeister and Biden in a statement provided to The Hill.

“The difference between Joy Hofmeister’s and Joe Biden’s plans for Oklahoma are negligible — both want to push a radical agenda on students and make it harder for families to put food on the table,” said RGA spokesman Will Reinert.

Still, recent surveys have shown Stitt’s approval rating underwater this year, with 42 percent of Oklahomans approving of his job performance and 52 percent disapproving in a poll earlier this month.

Alexander said no one issue is responsible for the tight race, pointing instead to a combination of factors.

Education has been a central issue in the race as Stitt has made supporting school vouchers a major part of his campaign. Stitt promoted school voucher legislation during the past legislative session, but the bill failed.

Alexander said the bill was unpopular in rural parts of the state because it would have pulled money out of the state funding formula, causing major budget cuts for the schools in those areas.

In many cases, rural students in Oklahoma do not have any other options of nearby schools they could attend, so the voucher program would not help them.

“In rural Oklahoma, a lot of times the schools are the lifeblood of those communities,” Alexander said.

Hofmeister and Stitt sparred over education at the race’s only debate on Wednesday. Stitt criticized Hofmeister’s record as superintendent, pointing to the state’s continued low test scores, while Hofmeister called Stitt’s voucher proposal a “rural school killer.”

Hofmeister also attacked Stitt over crime, in a notable reverse of the trend seen in other races, where Republicans have hammered their Democratic opponents over the issue. During the debate, she claimed Oklahoma had a higher violent crime rate than California and New York, something Stitt denied. However, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appears to back up her argument.

Amid all of this, Stitt has been in a public feud with Native American tribes in the state, several of which have waded directly into the governor’s race in a major break from tradition.

Earlier this month, five of Oklahoma’s largest tribes issued a joint endorsement of Hofmeister, a surprise move that came after Stitt ended hunting and fishing license agreements with the Cherokee and Choctaw nations; opposed a Supreme Court ruling that found a large part of the state should remain tribal reservation; and unsuccessfully attempted to renegotiate the state’s share of casino revenue with tribes, which exclusively operate casinos there.

Hudson Talley, the co-founder of Ascend Action, the political consulting firm that conducted the poll showing Hofmeister up by 7 points, said the Democrat has focused her campaign heavily on criticizing Stitt’s record, while Stitt has concentrated on positive messaging around his platform.

But he said Stitt has shifted to negative campaigning as polls have shown a tighter race. 

Meanwhile, Hofmeister has hammered Stitt over allegations of corruption.

A recent investigation revealed that millions of dollars intended for families to purchase school supplies amid the COVID-19 pandemic were used for electronics like televisions and gaming consoles under Stitt.

Reports also showed that the state paid millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars to a restaurant as part of a state contract designed to attract interest in Oklahoma’s state parks. The money reportedly funded renovations and management fees and covered revenue losses.

Democrats said they are hopeful about Hofmeister’s chances and her competitiveness in the race is a strong sign regardless of the result.

“Kevin Stitt’s pattern of corruption and record of failing public schools has forced the RGA to spend over $1.5 million in Oklahoma to try to bail him out,” said Sam Newton, the Democratic Governors Association’s deputy communications director. “In contrast, Joy Hofmeister continues to build a strong, bipartisan coalition by focusing on solving the state’s biggest issues like improving public education and public safety.”

Alicia Andrews, the chairwoman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said elections are often a reflection of “something big,” and she believes people are responding to the “corruption and scandal” that the state is mired in. She said people want to feel that they are being heard and desire transparency.

She said the RGA and Republican National Committee have not needed to spend resources in Oklahoma in a long time, showing that Hofmeister’s message is resonating.

Andrews said she is “very optimistic” about the race and people need to understand that they cannot sit out this election.

“That’s what my focus is on right now, just making sure that people participate, that everybody who’s eligible and registered participates. And I think when that happens, we will have a new governor,” she said.

Oklahoma State Sen. Nathan Dahm (R) also emphasized turnout on the Republican side. He said he is skeptical about the accuracy of the polls showing the race so close, but he expects the race to be closer than in certain other solidly Republican states.

He pointed to Oklahoma’s long history as an overwhelmingly Democratic state since it gained statehood.

Pat McFerron, a pollster for the Oklahoma City-based polling and consulting firm CMA Strategies, said what swing voters will think about when they go into the polls is unclear.

“If they walk into the ballot box thinking about Joe Biden, I think Kevin Stitt’s going to win reelection,” he said.

“If they’re thinking about the direction of the state, Hofmeister has a shot,” he added. 

Tags Joe Biden Joy Hofmeister Kevin Stitt Kevin Stitt Oklahoma

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