By Hastings Wyman –
After a hard-fought Republican gubernatorial primary with six candidates, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt will face each other in a runoff on August 28. In the June 26 primary, Cornett led with 29.35%, Stitt was second with 24.41% and Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb finished a close third with 23.87%.
State Question 788, the initiative to legalize medical marijuana which passed 56% to 43%, “drove most of the turnout. More than in the 2016 Super Tuesday,” said Chad Alexander, former chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party. “Expect a big falloff in the runoff.”
“Turnout in the runoff will be shaped by down-ticket races,” says Keith Gaddie, professor of Political Journalism at the University of Oklahoma.
There are 29 runoffs for state representative, including ten with Republican incumbents. This should help mitigate the turnout drop that usually occurs in runoffs.
The contest is for the open governorship to be vacated by Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who is term-limited. Her early high favorables sank when the state’s services were seriously cut as her tax cuts took effect. However, tax revenues are increasing, which may ease pressure on the incoming governor.
Mick Cornett, 59, has been mayor of Oklahoma City for 14 years. He was the first mayor of the city elected to a fourth term. His achievements include a new convention center, street cars and bringing Oklahoma City Thunder, an NBA team, to the city. He served as president of the United States Conference of Mayors. He first gained prominence in the city as a television news anchor. Cornett raised $1,922,000 as of June 12.
Cornett is running on two themes. First, that he will achieve for the state the kind of accomplishments he brought to Oklahoma City. Second, he wants to “fix the mess” in state government, essentially the drastic cutting of services, including cutbacks for schools that resulted in four-day school weeks in some districts. He wants to raise teacher pay and says raising taxes would not be his “first instinct.”
Cornett will run well in Oklahoma City and the surrounding area, but voters in the rest of the state have a history of opposition to having a governor from the state capital. Indeed, Stitt told an audience last week, “I don’t think we need the mayor of Oklahoma City to be the next governor … We need a governor for all four million Oklahomans,” reported NewsOK.
Nevertheless, “It’s a coin toss that favors Cornett,” says Gaddie.
Kevin Stitt started out with $1,000 and a computer and built a nationwide mortgage brokerage company. He is 45, 14 years younger than Cornett. Stitt and his wife have six children. He opposes tax hikes but favors paying Oklahoma teachers higher salaries, comparable to those in neighboring states.
Stitt has deep pockets. Before the first primary, he spent some $2.2 million of his own money and brought in almost $2 million in contributions.
Stitt is well-regarded, says Gaddie. “He may sell well.”
Lamb, who might be the deciding factor in the runoff, has made no endorsement. “His campaign wasn’t prepared for not making the runoff,” says Alexander. In any case, “They are of limited value,” says Gaddie, noting that Lamb had a long list of endorsements in the primary, including one from Donald Trump Jr., but it didn’t help him.
“It was an ani-incumbent year… As many incumbents – six – lost as in the 1990s,” says Alexander. “More could lose in the runoffs.” Moreover, Gov. Fallin has a very low approval rating. “People didn’t disassociate” the lieutenant governor from the governor, even though they are elected separately. This was especially true among the large numbers of new voters brought out by the medical marijuana referendum.”
There have been no polls yet.
In November, either Cornett or Stitt will face former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, 71, scion of a family long prominent in Sooner State politics.