LAWTON — On the west edge of an oval dirt track, the tall bushy-browed Kevin Stitt — wearing boots and jeans — stood between wide tires and struts, quizzing drivers more about engines and racing than taxes and education.
It was another stop on Stitt’s race for the governor’s mansion.
The Republican candidate for governor, with two of his six children in tow, visited would-be voters on the muggy evening of July 28, at the Lawton Speedway — Tuesday’s GOP runoff election against former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett then a few weeks away.
It was stop number 300-plus (the campaign staff had lost count) after spending that morning shaking hands in Chandler and Stroud.
“It feels like I’ve met the whole state at this point,” Stitt said.
The Lawton Speedway visit drew a particular parallel to the whirlwind statewide campaign schedule.
“He goes 100 miles an hour. He just never stops,” Stitt campaign manager Aamon Ross shouted above the crescendo of autos that were spinning mud off the watered-down dirt track situated adjacent to the Lawton airport.
The unintended pun about the speed of Stitt’s campaign style was not lost on those who managed to hear it over the roar of motors.
This campaign stop was no coincidence. Drivers on this sprint-car racing circuit are still reeling from comments made in 2009 by Cornett, then mayor of Oklahoma City, voicing satisfaction that the Oklahoma State Fair was closing the State Fair Speedway in Oklahoma City.
“The track has served us well for 50 years, but it’s not the best place for racing the next 50 years,” Cornett told NewsOK at the time.
That removal of a favorite sprint-car venue put a big dent in Oklahoma racers’ opportunities to compete — and the drivers remember.
“If you beat Mick Cornett, I will come down and kiss your ass on Main Street,” one driver told Stitt in the Lawton track pit.
It was the rare moment when Cornett’s name surfaced in Stitt’s interaction with the would-be voters.
Campaign manager Aamon Ross gulped, “Uh, that’s not on the record, is it?”
At that point in the campaign, the race had not yet become negative. Stitt’s field staff wanted to keep it that way.
Mick Cornett on the campaign trail: ‘People want more governing’ by Michael Duncan
At a meeting with Republican voters in the Tuttle City Hall a few days later, Stitt said, “The two other gentlemen in the race (Cornett and Democrat Drew Edmondson) are good people, but I have better ideas for Oklahoma.”
After that campaign stop, the GOP gubernatorial runoff would grow chippy. Before the volleys of negative campaign ads started flying, Stitt steered away from negativity in his town hall meetings and one-on-one interactions. He avoided comparisons to or attacks against Cornett, a strategy kept in early televised debates but ditched more recently.
Stitt’s campaign staff describe him as unorthodox. Sometimes he goes “off script” when talking to small groups of voters.
Constituent challenges Stitt on abortion
On the campaign trail, both GOP candidates face pointed questions and, as one might expect, from a very conservative audience.
“I appreciate the fact that all of your ads say you are 100 percent pro-life … not that having six children makes you pro-life,” Brenda Short, of Chickasha, told Stitt at the Tuttle gathering.
Stitt was quick with a reply.
“Well, it makes me more pro-life than my opponent, right?” he said with a smile. The audience of about 25 area residents laughed.
Not satisfied with Stitt’s humor, Short then asked, “So, what are you going to do to eliminate these 67 abortion clinics in Oklahoma? These are human beings being killed in utero for the convenience of the mother.”
There was a pause as the audience stared at Stitt, waiting for a reply, not a quip.
”So, obviously, I’m pro-life. I believe life begins at conception. I will sign any piece of legislation that hits my desk that protects life,” Stitt said. “I’m excited about what President Trump is doing. He’s just got his second Supreme Court nomination. He’ll turn that (issue) over to the states. We can do what we can to make abortion illegal in Oklahoma. If they want to do it in California that’s fine, but the people in Oklahoma want to make abortion illegal.”
Of course, even if Roe v. Wade did not exist, banning abortion by governor’s executive order would raise significant legal challenges, but Stitt said that changing the way Oklahoma Supreme Court justices are appointed would help, and he advocated a change in how the state Judicial Nominating Commission selects candidates for the governor’s appointment of justices.
“I’m the only candidate who says we need to make sure our state Supreme Court is conservative, pro-life,” Stitt said. “We are a state of laws and we have to work within the system to do it, but we will find a road and figure out ways to do it. It’s not going to happen overnight, but as governor I’ll sign any piece of legislation that does it.”
Stitt: ‘I never ask anyone to do anything I’m not willing to do’
Stitt then pivoted from abortion to the economy, saying he was the pro-growth candidate against unnecessary regulations. It is a talking point straight from the Donald Trump campaign playbook, a fact not lost on anyone.
“Your story sounds similar (to Trump),” came a shout from the Tuttle audience.
“Yeah, but I’m not a tweeter like Trump,” Stitt replied. “I don’t tweet. I’m a business person, but I’m way more collaborative. I have to work with people and my team. That’s who I am.”
Another talking point taken from Trump’s 2016 campaign is that Stitt is the anti-politician, businessman candidate. Stitt campaign press secretary Donelle Harder said she has discovered that the advertised image of Stitt as the non-politician is more than just campaign fluff.
“I’ve worked for establishment politicians,” said Harder, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe. “The more establishment candidates want a more controlled environment on the campaign trail, but with Kevin, he’s just willing to go anywhere. And sometimes says things unexpected.”
Maybe like his promise to those who financially contribute to his campaign?
“I match every donation dollar for dollar. If you put $500 into our campaign I put in $500. And now, we’ve got more donations than anybody running,” Stitt said. “I never ask anyone to do anything I’m not willing to do.”