(Editor’s Note: As with NonDoc’s #HotRaces series from June, time constraints and limited resources prohibit us from personally interviewing each of almost 30 candidates from Oklahoma’s ongoing runoff elections that we’ve chosen to include in a new series: #OKrunoffs. Instead, we’ve opted to filter information about runoff contenders using publicly available information online and present it through the lens of political commentary and analysis. As the field narrows leading up to the general election Nov. 8, we plan to reach out to remaining candidates more directly.)
The Republican runoff for State Senate District 41 between Paul Blair and Adam Pugh may be one of the odder contests in Oklahoma’s recent political history.
In one corner stands a self-described “conservative patriot” Air Force veteran who heads business development for an OKC-based aerospace company and occasionally substitute teaches.
In the other stands a former NFL player-turned-pastor who is aligned with the John Birch Society but has received the endorsement of Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, a Democrat.
If you toss in a couple conservative congressmen, a peculiar press conference and the impugned reputation of an Oklahoma public education advocate/mother, you’ve got Oklahoma electoral drama at its finest.
SD 41 is an open seat owing to the term limitation of Sen. Clark Jolley (R-Edmond), the body’s most recent chairman of appropriations. Jolley was high-profile, known for brash behavior while toting some of the heftier GOP legislation over the past decade.
In 2014, Jolley ran for U.S. Congress, finishing third in the GOP primary and producing this amusing photo from the campaign trail:
In June’s primary, the three GOP candidates vying to replace him split votes for SD 41. Pugh received 3,424 (49.9 percent), Blair received 3,108 (45.3 percent) and Jeff Tallent received 332 (4.8 percent).
Since Pugh fell nine votes short of a plurality, he and Blair face off in the Aug. 23 runoff election.
A former air battle manager in the U.S. Air Force, Adam Pugh lists four “guiding principles” on his website that seem intended to emphasize his conservative bona fides: One nation under God; defend our liberty; limited government; and a patriot, not a politician. (Political candidates claiming not to be politicians is always great, isn’t it?)
While Pugh’s website lists no specific policy positions, it does mention his experience as a substitute teacher in Deer Creek and Edmond Public Schools. It also features an interesting site-navigation error.
If users are on Pugh’s “photos” page and click the “about” section, they are, in fact, directed to the “about” page of a GOP legislative candidate … it’s just not Adam Pugh.
Instead, the link redirects to the site of House District 39 candidate Ryan Martinez (who won his June primary and now faces Libertarian Clark Duffe in the general). Martinez and Pugh’s sites use the same format and theme, and it’s likely the error was made by the company hired to create both sites.
A one-time staffer to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — an anti-abortion advocate and conservative darling — Pugh ran in 2014 for House District 82.
He has been criticized by his opponent for only living in Oklahoma since 2005.
Pastor Paul Blair also ran for office in 2014, losing to an incumbent Jolley (rather than a jolly incumbent?) in SD 41’s GOP primary. Despite having his own notoriety as an anti-LGBT advocate, a John Birch Society constitutionalist and a former OSU and NFL football player, Blair couldn’t oust Jolley. He also couldn’t successfully sue the senator over advertising criticisms, as the case was dismissed by the court.
Blair “is not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” to quote Romans 1:16 as it is displayed on his football-focused pastor page for Fairview Baptist Church. (“I hope and pray you will join me in being a member of God’s team.”)
Nor is Blair ashamed to be a member of the John Birch Society, according to the video above in which he promotes the storied anti-communism organization. Having long been kept at arm’s length by the mainstream conservative right, the JBS has produced this handy Myths vs. Facts page that maintains a subtle opposition to federal civil rights laws.
Nor, apparently, is Blair ashamed to critique Islam as a religion of violence. Blair hosted a 2014 community meeting to discuss Islam, which was captured in this KOCO report. Ironically, the pastor and his staff did not allow two Muslim women interviewed by the station to enter the meeting because one did not want to remove her niqab, a face cover that is part of the religion’s sartorial hijab.
The former football player contended that the woman might be hiding something and that he had a flock’s safety to consider.
Speaking of, Blair’s football career appears to be of enormous importance to him. He mentions it repeatedly on his church’s website, his campaign’s website and his social media accounts, even listing “former NFL football player” ahead of Senate candidate and even pastor on Facebook.
In a January Open letter to Donald Trump about constitutionalism and Christianity, Blair uses 76 words of his bio to explain how he was “a three year starter at offensive tackle for Oklahoma State University” and “a fourth round draft pick” and “one of only three rookies to make the team of the defending World Champion Bears.”
“I’ve never been afraid of the camera,” Blair told the Baptist Messenger in 2007. “At OSU, I wound up being a favorite spokesperson because I could put together complete sentences.”
Accusations refuted in press conference
On July 18, Blair and several supporters stood in front of a half-dozen cameras to hold an unusual press conference at the State Capitol.
Blair was attempting to push back on rumors that the pastor had been photographed wearing KKK attire and that his church had offered respite to the nation’s most infamous group of religious bigots — the Westboro Baptist Church.
The presser, which can be viewed or downloaded here, resulted in three peculiar things:
- Blair accusing public education advocate Angela Clark Little of falsely spreading rumors that Blair had welcomed Westboro Baptist Church members to his Fairview Baptist Church in 2011;
- Former prosecutor Wes Lane outing an internet troll — screen-name James Dare — as convicted felon James Nix and accusing him of circulating Photoshopped images of Blair in Klan attire;
- The Lost Ogle publishing those images for the public to see for itself.
“Devastating,” Blair said near the end of his press conference when asked what it’s like to be called a racist. “I am a minister. Out here in the hallway, we’ve got at least 30 members of our church who are, in fact, African American. When you’re a pastor, when you’re a man of God. Your reputation is everything.”
Of those politicians, Russell and Lane supported the pastor at his presser while Blair argued that he has not and will not go negative in the SD 41 campaign.
That statement, however, poses a strange dichotomy when viewed next to the former footballer’s ongoing and very public criticism of Angela Clark Little, the Edmond mother and education activist whose reputation Blair began maligning after he saw her Facebook posts.
All of this is to say that Blair is caught up in an exceptionally odd campaign, one full of boundless football references (Al Bundy scored four touchdowns in one game, by the way), dubious accusations of extremist behavior and bipartisan district attorney endorsements.
Voters will head to the polls and settle this Pugh v. Blair contest Tuesday, Aug. 23.