Oklahoma Governor: What’s Going On

Oklahoma’s governor, Kevin Stitt, is the latest Republican incumbent to suffer electoral headwinds due to caustic rhetoric and policy. Previously, Split Ticket discussed the factors underlying the ratings change for South Dakota’s Kristi Noem. But similar to Noem, Stitt has antagonized a number of key groups, faces a strong Democratic opponent, and suffers from closer-than-expected polling averages. These factors confirm Split Ticket’s recent rating change from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.

This race would not be on the board if not for Kevin Stitt’s numerous missteps. As part of the Sufferance which the people of the State have borne, Stitt has angered many and usurped many powers hitherto unclaimed by the executive. Among other things:

Those are just the tribal issues. On educational issues, Stitt has started many feuds with educators in the state over right-wing ideological points. One such battle is the “transgender panic” that is sweeping through conservative education discourse. Stitt also has tried to push for expanding school vouchers, which is anathema to otherwise-rock ribbed conservative rural Oklahomans. On issues of corruption, issues such as building a new governor’s mansion that is not widely seen as necessary, numerous government appointees being forced to resign over corruption, and other improprieties and malfeasances have hurt Stitt’s image. Arguably most important in a very rural state, Stitt vetoed several million dollars for emergency services in rural areas, and delayed the passage of drought relief due to “not wanting to declare a state of emergency while running for re-election”, as one senior Oklahoma political insider told Split Ticket.

The final and big nail in the coffin for Stitt’s image is the fact that he has widely made known through a retinue of influence peddlers, his wish to run for President in 2024. Considering that he is not a safe lock to win re-election in Oklahoma, a state that Trump won by over 30 points, it might be wise for Stitt to reconsider such a proposal.

Thus covers the first aspect of the rating change. Stitt is a weak candidate, but this race would not be competitive but for the strength of his Democratic opponent, incumbent State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. Hofmeister is a former Republican who is now running as a moderate Democrat. As a result of her party switch, she is the only incumbent statewide Democratic elected in Oklahoma since the end of the Brad Henry administration in 2010.

Her campaign is hoping that she can turn out a coalition of moderates, independents, and disaffected conservatives. It does seem unlikely, but Split Ticket believes that Hofmeister’s desired coalition is more tenable than that of Drew Edmondson, the 2018 candidate for governor. Hofmeister is a currently-serving incumbent, whereas Edmondson had been out of politics since leaving the Attorney General position in 2011. Furthermore, Hofmeister is from Tulsa, a key Democratic bellwether in competitive statewide elections. Her entire persona is crafted around winning moderate suburban voters who are more amenable to the modern iteration of the Democratic Party. Edmondson, on the other hand, is from Muskogee in eastern Oklahoma, and aimed to cater to the old ancestrally Democratic base there – but fell very far short in 2018. The last Democrat to actually win a solid chunk of ancestrally blue voters in eastern Oklahoma was Dan Boren in 2010, pictured below.

Edmondson, even when losing by 12, had a heavily urban-based coalition even though his appeal was widely seen as being rural-based. Thus, Hofmeister seems to actually understand that riding electoral trends along to a potential victory is a wiser choice.

In debates, Hofmeister has held her own, although she has typecast herself as a liberal Democrat on issues such as abortion and guns, which may not help her in a state as conservative as Oklahoma. Still, the salience of the education issue and Hofmeister’s background as the superintendent of the state’s public schools gives her ample room to pitch her case.

Then looking at polling for the race, Hofmeister has recently actually led Stitt in polls, getting as high as 49% of affirmative support. This is a far better position than Edmondson’s in 2018, where he never broke above 44% in polling. Stitt is also under 50% as an incumbent in Oklahoma in every poll from the last month. However, Split Ticket will temper expectations because undecided voters in Oklahoma are overwhelmingly conservative and nearly all of them will break for the Republican. The current 538 polling average shows Stitt up by a single point, 45-44. This leaves 11 points of undecided voters, which plausibly could result in a 54-46 Republican victory on Election Day.

Furthermore, the consensus among all the major forecasters was that Oklahoma’s governor race was Leans Republican in 2018. Drew Edmondson arguably had worse polling, which makes this decision befuddling in hindsight. But 4 years out, the forecasting community has a greater understanding of how post-Trump white voter realignment has affected ancestral Democrats. Oklahoma, in this sense, is fairly similar to the Kentucky 2019 governor’s race – a GOP incumbent actively gives voters reasons for die-hard conservatives not to vote for them, and ends up running against a competent Democratic statewide official. The difference between the two is that 1) Kentucky is slightly bluer, both today and in 2019 and 2) Kentucky’s state-level Democratic Party still wins a nominal share of rural voters that is simply non-existent in Oklahoma. Split Ticket will maintain the current consensus that the race is Likely Republican – favoring Stitt but giving Hofmeister an outside chance to win.

If Hofmeister does indeed win, perhaps the map will look like the Medicaid Expansion referendum map, which very narrowly passed. Rural areas rejected the ballot measure, but by significantly less than they reject Democratic candidates.

Still though, in a state which is as red as Massachusetts is blue, it would not be a bad idea to bet on the GOP. The race is now Likely Republican, and there it shall remain until Election Day.

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