GOP Hopes to Avoid Upset in Oklahoma Governor’s Race
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Gov. Kevin Stitt’s reelection was supposed to be a slam dunk.
After all, Oklahoma is a reliably red state and former President Donald Trump effectively ran the table here in 2020, garnering nearly two for every three votes cast.
But while nonpartisan analysts like FiveThirtyEight.com and The Cook Political Report still favor Stitt to win, the state in recent weeks has become something of a litmus test of the power of the Native American vote.
Stitt, a multimillionaire mortgage company owner and political newcomer when he ran four years ago, launched his 2018 campaign under the banner of making Oklahoma a “top 10 state.”
Like other Republican governors in recent years, Stitt then proceeded to push through and approve such polarizing policies as restricting abortion access in the state and reopening the state’s schools and businesses at the very height of the coronavirus pandemic.
To Joy Hofmeister, a fellow Republican who has been the state’s superintendent of Public Instruction since 2014, Stitt had simply gone too far.
In October 2021 she announced via a video she posted to Twitter both the launch of her gubernatorial campaign and her intention to run against Stitt as a Democrat.
“I’m switching parties in hopes of building the Oklahoma I’ve always known our state can be,” Hofmeister said in her announcement.
In subsequent interviews, Hofmeister told reporters she’d been a Republican for “longer than Gov. Stitt was registered to vote.”
After allowing for the ensuing chuckles to die down, she’d add: “I’m fiscally conservative. I’m aggressively moderate. And I always have been.”
Because of her background, Hofmeister is appealing to voters that most Democrats in the state can’t reach.
But it is Stitt’s relations with Oklahoma’s Native American tribes that is giving him and the GOP the most headaches as the heated 2022 campaign glides to a conclusion.
The governor’s feud with the tribes goes back to his first year in office when he unsuccessfully tried to renegotiate the state’s gambling compact with them.
Stitt’s administration then sought to overturn a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on tribal sovereignty in 2020 and then, late last year, he terminated longstanding hunting and fishing compacts between the state and the tribes.
In the latter case, Stitt claimed the tribes purchased hundreds of thousands fewer licenses than what was promised as guaranteed minimums, resulting in nearly $17.5 million less in state and federal revenue over the life of the agreements.
The tribes, in a written statement, claim Stitt was merely trying to exact revenge after the Choctaw Nation elected not to accept the terms of his proposed unnegotiated license structure.
“We remain disappointed and confused that Gov. Stitt focuses so much time and energy on needless conflict with Native American tribes, when we are open to cooperating with him to again benefit our members and all Oklahomans,” the Choctaw and the leaders of the state’s four other major tribes said.
Since then, the relationship between Stitt and the tribes has only gotten worse.
In early October it came to a head when the leaders of the state’s five largest tribes — the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee, Choctaw and Seminole nations – officially endorsed Hofmeister to be the state’s next governor.
In doing so, the leaders cited the newly minted Democrat’s respect for tribal sovereignty and her commitment to work with the state’s nearly 40 federally recognized tribes for the betterment of all Oklahomans.
According to published reports, it was the first time in modern history that the leaders have weighed in on a governor’s race so publicly.
“As a gubernatorial candidate, Joy Hofmeister recognizes that we all want the same things: safe communities, a strong economy, a stable workforce, well-funded education, investments in our infrastructure, and a continued focus on health and wellness, family, and community,” the tribal leaders said in a written statement.
“When it comes to working with the tribal nations in Oklahoma, she understands our sovereignty is not a partisan issue or a threat, but instead is a chance to forge new partnerships while strengthening those that already exist because Oklahomans thrive together when we all work together,” they said. “This year’s Oklahoma gubernatorial election is the most important in generations for all Oklahomans, and that’s why leaders of the Five Tribes are endorsing Joy Hofmeister to be Oklahoma’s 29th governor.”
Hofmeister responded by saying she “proudly” and “humbly” accepted their “historic endorsement.”
“The bond we have with the 39 tribal nations who call our state home is one of Oklahoma’s greatest competitive advantages and what makes Oklahoma entirely unique,” she said. “As governor, I will embrace that bond, not break it.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oklahoma has one of the highest state percentages of native citizens, at nearly 10% of the state’s population. An additional 6.6% identify as being two or more races.
Political analysts in the state say those numbers are easily enough to tip the scales in a challenger’s favor in a closely contested statewide race.
And two other candidates, Libertarian Natalie Bruno and independent Ervin Yen, will also appear on Oklahoma ballots on Tuesday.
Energized, Hofmeister then embarked on what she called her “Hometown Bus Tour,” which culminated Monday, making 50 stops in 37 communities and 27 counties.
Hoping to avert a wholly unexpected upset, the super PAC for the Republican Governors Association made a seven-figure ad buy late in the campaign, and has been running spots attempting to tie Hofmeister to President Joe Biden and rising gas prices.
The party has also solicited the assistance of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to try to firm up Stitt’s support.
At the moment, the race still appears to be Stitt’s to lose, with the nonpartisan FiveThirtyEight.com rating the state “likely Republican,” and forecasting that Stitt will receive 56.1% of the vote to Hofmeister’s 43.5%. Both Sabato’s Crystal Ball, out of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and The Cook Political Report rate the state “likely Republican.”
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