By Hastings Wyman –
Republicans and Democrats in Oklahoma will go to the polls on June 26 to choose their candidates for governor. For the GOP, there is likely to be a runoff on August 28. That’s because there are six candidates seeking the Republican nomination, at least three of them with substantial support, so no candidate is expected to win a majority on the first vote. The Democrats have only two contenders.
The two contests will be held against the backdrop of the widely perceived failure of the governorship of Mary Fallin (R), who is term-limited. Her early high favorables sank as the state’s services were seriously cut as her tax cuts took effect. Part of the problem was that oil prices fell to $26 a barrel, although Democrats cite the governor’s tax cuts as the major culprit. Now oil is more than $70 a barrel, and state revenues have been growing for the last six to nine months. Says Keith Gaddie, chairman of the political science department at the University of Oklahoma, state tax revenues “are rolling in, but too late to help” Fallin. “Mary Fallin’s numbers are just awful,” says The Sooner Poll’s Bill Shapard. However, the rising revenue may ease the pressure on the incoming governor.
The top three Republican contenders are Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, former Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett and Tulsa mortgage company CEO Kevin Stitt. Says Chad Alexander, former chairman of the state Republican Party, “Right now it’s a three-person race,” among Stitt, Cornett or Lamb; “A runoff is certain.” The GOP race is “a wide open hot mess,” says Gaddie.
Lamb (R), 46, finishing his second term as lieutenant governor, is the early frontrunner. He won the 2010 Republican Primary for lieutenant governor with 67% in a five-candidate race and won the General Election by 64% to 32%. Before his tenure as the state’s number two official, he was in the state Senate for six years. Lamb represented Oklahoma City in the legislature but claims Enid, his birthplace, as home, to avoid the big city stigma, says one observer. His campaign theme is “Renew Oklahoma,” perhaps to separate himself from the unpopular Fallin Administration. “He’s kind of the mainstream” of Oklahoma Republicans, says Alexander.
Cornett, 59, served as mayor of Oklahoma City for 14 years, producing 14 years of balanced budgets. He presided over “a renaissance in Oklahoma City,” says Alexander; “The city is booming.” As a result, he was named one of the 50 greatest world leaders by Fortune Magazine. He is especially strong in Oklahoma City and the surrounding TV market. But despite his accomplishments, that may not be enough.
Cornett “is strong in the cities,” says Gaddie, “but will get slaughtered in the Southeast part of the state over water issues.” Says pollster Shapard, “The real story is that Oklahoma City mayors never get elected; Cornett’s numbers are high, but he’s going to fail.” Like many mayors, Cornett has from time to time supported tax increases.
Stitt, 45, a Tulsa businessman, started off with $1,000 and a computer and now has one of the largest mortgage companies in the US. He’s a dynamic speaker and the father of six children. He’s running as the outsider businessman, focusing on the state’s budget problems. “The people who got us into this can’t get us out,” proclaims Stitt and headlines his campaign website, “Okahoma’s Turnaround Starts Now!” These are very Trumpian themes, but all of the candidates cite Trump, whose approval rating among the state’s Republicans is 89%. Says Alexander, “Everybody distrusts the media.”
Gary Richardson,77, served as US Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma in President Reagan’s first term. He ran for governor as an independent in 2002, garnering 14% of the vote, after losing two congressional races as a Republican. He is running as a staunch conservative (as are most of the candidates), supporting gun rights and opposing abortion. He recently caught some flak for a TV spot that emphasized his opposition to illegal immigration by referring to a 2015 accident in which an illegal Mexican immigrant, thrice previously deported, made an illegal u-turn, resulting in the death of a local sportscaster, Bob Barry Jr. Barry’s family criticized the ad.
Dan Fisher, 60, has been a Christian pastor since he was 23 years old and continues today as the senior pastor of Liberty Church in Yukon, OK. He served two terms in the state House of Representative. He believes that Christians should not separate their secular and sacred lives and supports a solidly conservative social agenda.
Gary Jones, 63, a CPA, was elected State Auditor and Inspector in 2010 and reelected in 2014. He may gain from his role in uncovering a financial scandal at the State Department of Public Health. But for Jones to benefit would be problematic, considering his last place in recent polling. If lightning should strike, however, he would have grassroots contacts from having once been state Republican chairman.
The Sooner Poll of Republicans released April 4 put Cornett in the lead with 22%, closely followed by Lamb with 21%. Stitt had 8%, Richardson 7%, Fisher 4%, and Jones 3%. A new Sooner Poll will be released this week.
In the money chase, at the end of the 1st Quarter Lamb had $2,414,000 cash-on-hand, Stitt had $1.6 million, Richardson $777,000, Cornett $623,000, Jones $44,000 and Fisher had $63,000.
The last time Democrats elected a governor was in 2002 so the betting – even at this early date – is that a Republican will keep the governor’s mansion in GOP hands for another four years. But the Democrats have flipped four state legislative seats from R to D in special elections since President Trump took office, reviving the party’s hopes.
The leading Democrat is Drew Edmondson, 71, a former state attorney general and the scion of a family long prominent in Sooner State politics; his father was in congress and his uncle was governor. Edmondson ran for governor in 2010 but lost in the primary. Noting that Republicans do well when the Democrats win the presidency, and vice-versa, he says, “I think it’s time for a Democratic governor.”
Connie Johnson served in the state senate for 33 years, representing the mostly African American part of the city. In the senate, she served on the Senate Appropriations and the Health and Human Services committees. She champions a number of liberal causes, especially those dealing with the poor. Johnson was the Democratic US Senate nominee in 2014 but lost badly (29% to 68%). The state’s black voters account for some 8% of the state’s electorate and a higher share of the Democratic electorate. The state has never elected an African American to statewide office.
In the April 4 Sooner Poll, Democrats gave Edmondson 34% to Johnson’s 13%.
On the money front, Edmondson had $293,000 cash-on-hand at the end of the 1st Quarter. No numbers were available for Johnson.
At this juncture, a Republican runoff is likely between two of three candidates, Lamb, Cornett or Stitt. For the Democrats, Edmondson, a very familiar Sooner State name, is the likely winner. Stay tuned.