In Oklahoma, GOP Governor Kevin Stitt At Risk After Battles With Teachers And Tribes

Democratic school superintendent Joy Hofmeister has the money and a coalition to win — but it won’t be easy.
Joy Hofmeister, the Democratic candidate for governor in Oklahoma, waves during her Hometown Bus Tour on Tuesday.
Joy Hofmeister, the Democratic candidate for governor in Oklahoma, waves during her Hometown Bus Tour on Tuesday.
via Associated Press

OKMULGEE, Okla. — In a year when Republicans are buoyed by historical trends and poised to possibly retake control of Congress, Democrats are seeing a bright spot in an unlikely place: the governor’s race in deep red Oklahoma.

Kevin Stitt, the hard-nosed Republican incumbent, is beset by a series of scandals and facing 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 took 65% of the vote and won all 77 counties, Stitt has had to get last-minute help from the Republican Governors Association, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). He has also loaned his campaign $1.9 million of his own money.

In contrast, Hofmeister received an unprecedented joint endorsement from the five biggest tribal nations of the state’s 39 federally recognized tribes, seen poll numbers that show her “aggressively moderate” message may be working and nabbed the endorsement of former congressman and Oklahoma Sooner football star J.C. Watts, a Republican.

She has 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 action that leads to the best optimal results, and you have to have collaborative leadership to get that done. And this governor is incapable,” Hofmeister told HuffPost.

“I’m a bridge builder. He’s a bridge burner.”

“I don’t think you have somebody, an incumbent governor, reaching into his own pocket if it’s not a legitimate concern about the outcome.”

- Pat McFerron, veteran Oklahoma pollster

Polling on the race has been erratic, showing either big Stitt leads or narrow Hofmeister advantages. The most recent reputable poll, by Emerson College, put Stitt up 52% to 43%. Another poll, released Wednesday by an Oklahoma City TV station, though, showed Stitt with only a 1-point lead, within the margin of error.

McFerron pointed to Stitt’s personal loan as proof of the race’s competitiveness.

“I don’t think you have somebody, an incumbent governor, reaching into his own pocket if it’s not a legitimate concern about the outcome,” he said.

‘Starkly Different’ Candidates on Education

Hofmeister has portrayed herself as a reluctant warrior, switching parties only after Stitt had “hijacked” the Republican Party and, she said, became too divisive politically.

At the top of that list is education. Stitt’s support of a school voucher bill in 2021 that the state’s biggest teachers union said would mean the closure of many rural schools, combined with Hofmeister’s background in elementary education, made Hofmeister the obvious pick for teachers.

To help deal with the voucher plan backlash, Stitt posted a video to Twitter Oct. 27 extolling 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 directly to the camera in the video. “I will stand for our way of life, our rural communities, like I’ve done for the last four years.”

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt talks to former president Donald J. Trump in 2020 at the White House at a roundtable on reopening businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt talks to former president Donald J. Trump in 2020 at the White House at a roundtable on reopening businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Alex Wong via Getty Images

With almost 4 million people, 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 biggest teachers union, they cannot wait to vote against Stitt.

“Our two candidates are starkly different,” said Katherine Bishop, president of the 18,000-member Oklahoma Education Association.

“We have one that is a champion for public schools and wants to make sure that we are doing everything to make sure that the public schools are a core service and receive everything they need to have. And then you have another candidate that wants to bring in all kinds of voucher schemes to dismantle our public schools.”

Despite a 2018 boost in support brought about by teachers walking out, Bishop said Oklahoma’s schools were still digging out of a deep financial hole. The National Education Association ranked Oklahoma 34th in teacher salaries and 45th in per pupil spending in its most recent rankings.

At a debate in Oklahoma City, Stitt said he had put more money into education than any previous governor and “I’m going to stand for parents over big unions.”

Uniting The Tribes — In Opposition

Aside from teachers, the other major group upset with Stitt are the state’s tribal nations. Stitt got off to a bad footing with them when he proposed unilaterally renegotiating the compact agreement between the state and tribes on gambling revenues to increase the state’s share. Citing tribal sovereignty, the tribes took Oklahoma to court, where they ultimately won.

It was the start of an ongoing series of fights, the biggest of which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2020, the court, led by Justice Neil Gorsuch, said Congress failed to dissolve the reservations of several large tribes in the state’s eastern side when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and thus they remained legally intact.

The victory was seen as the biggest win for Indigenous people at the court in decades.

But after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the five votes for the tribes, Stitt succeeded in getting the court to reverse itself on a major portion of the so-called McGirt decision regarding state prosecution of crimes on Native lands.

“I’m a bridge builder. He’s a bridge burner.”

- Joy Hofmeister, Democratic candidate for governor in Oklahoma

The leaders of the state’s five biggest tribes — the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, Chickasaw and Great Seminole nations — endorsed Hofmeister on Oct. 11. It was the first time the tribes had jointly endorsed a state candidate and may mark a new, more aggressive stance by the tribal governments.

McFerron said the tribes have been active in state politics for much of the state’s history (the tribes’ presence predates the state by almost 100 years) but they were more out front now.

Medicaid Vote A Model?

Stitt, whose campaign did not answer requests to be interviewed, has also suffered from a series of self-inflicted political wounds in the form of scandals that have led to accusations of corruption.

They include:

All of that still may not be enough to help voters get past the “D” next to Hofmeister’s name on the ballot, though.

“Oklahoma is very deep red. It is difficult existing as blue here,” nail salon owner Sarah Embrey-Wellinghoff, a 29-year-old independent from Okmulgee, told HuffPost.

On the other hand, a victorious statewide vote in 2020 to expand Medicaid may point the way for Hofmeister. That expansion squeaked through with a margin of about 6,500 votes out of approximately 667,000 cast.

It won in only seven of the state’s 77 counties, but they included the most populated ones and those with big college or tribal presences. More important, the pro-expansion advocates avoided getting totally blown out in the rural counties, allowing for big margins but not so big the votes in the denser counties could not offset them.

Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-Okla.) has said he supports rural schools as his opponent, Democrat Joy Hofmeister, has said Stitt's policies would lead to many rural school closures.
Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-Okla.) has said he supports rural schools as his opponent, Democrat Joy Hofmeister, has said Stitt's policies would lead to many rural school closures.
Pacific Press via Getty Images

One of those rural places Hofmeister will be trying to keep Stitt’s victory margin down is Okmulgee County, about 30 minutes south of Tulsa.

Just 15 minutes south in Henryetta, Gwen Kearns, an 87-year-old registered nurse, said she won’t be voting for Hofmeister, even as she’s not fond of 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 nail salon owner, said she won’t be too disappointed if Hofmeister loses. But she said liberals like her needed to vote.

“The more Democrats that vote, they’re going to be able to be like, ‘Wow, the tide might be shifting, people might actually be changing or something,’” she said.

“Whereas if you just sit at home and you think red is going to win anyway, so there’s nothing I can do about it, you have to still vote to show that it’s closer than people — hopefully — think.”

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