When gubernatorial candidates are not raising money for campaign expenses and TV commercials, they visit different communities and recite stump speeches.
Sometimes they appear with other politicians of note, accepting endorsements and earning media coverage, such as today when Oklahoma GOP nominee Kevin Stitt will appear with Vice President Mike Pence in Tulsa.
More often, however, they tout their talking points in smaller towns as modest crowds consume foodstuffs.
With a little more than two weeks remaining before Oklahomans select a new governor, Stitt and Democrat Drew Edmondson are doing exactly that, and in the past seven days I attended an event for each.
Combined with other developments, the campaign stops offered evidence that Oklahoma’s race for governor is competitive as it heads for the home stretch.
‘Out-of-state’ ads aim at both Stitt and Edmondson
Speaking of TV ads, both Stitt and Edmondson are getting hammered on the airwaves by third-party attack ads. Commercials supporting Edmondson criticize Stitt as a continuation of beleaguered Gov. Mary Fallin’s tenure.
Ads assisting Stitt have criticized Edmondson for supporting former President Barack Obama and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Edmondson, long a thorn in the side of agricultural interests that favor deregulation, has been targeted by an ad featuring cattle who say he “stinks.” The ad, placed by the Republican Governors Association, criticized Edmondson as an advocate for raising Oklahoma’s income tax rate.
At Billy Boy BBQ in Shawnee on Tuesday, Edmondson pitched his plan to raise revenue for education by eliminating the incentive rate for gross production taxes on oil and gas wells, eliminating a “capital gains loophole for millionaires” and passing an additional $0.50 tax on cigarettes.
“Notice I didn’t say anything about raising your income tax,” Edmondson said. “Have you all seen the ad with the cows on it that says I’m going to raise your income tax? We have not completed our research, but we are fairly convinced at this step that those are out-of-state cows. We also firmly believe those cows have appeared in other ads, which makes them actors. They are paid-actor out-of-state cows, and don’t listen to a word they say about my record.”
While the Shawnee crowd roared with laughter at Edmondson’s droll analysis of the ads against him, Stitt’s campaign has pointed out numerous news stories quoting Edmondson as saying what he now says he does not.
“I would give the voters the opportunity to uptick the personal income tax back to 6 percent,” he said at a Democratic primary forum hosted by the Oklahoma Progressive Network.
Fallin endorsement plagues Stitt
Whatever grief Edmondson has caught for proposing plans seems largely matched by the grief Stitt has endured for lacking as many. Instead, the Republican nominee has stuck to taglines such as making Oklahoma a “top-10 state.”
At Java 39 in Bethany on Friday, Stitt told a room filled with supporters why he decided to run for governor.
“I started looking at the resumes of the people running. (…) I looked at all the (Republican) resumes and the Democrat’s resume, and I realized it’s the same resume as the old administration and the administration before that,” Stitt said. “I didn’t think anything was going to change if we kept electing kind of the political elites in our state. So if you remember one thing I say today, that’s my whole message: Folks, if we keep electing the same political elites, career politicians who have been in office for the last 50 years, I don’t think anything is going to change. I think we have to have an outsider.”
A businessman who founded and built Gateway Mortgage into a major company, Stitt’s outsider status helped propel him past Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb and former OKC Mayor Mick Cornett in competition for the 2018 Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Stitt has doubled down on criticizing “career politicians” now that he faces Edmondson, a man first elected to the Oklahoma Legislature in 1974. But days before Stitt spoke in Bethany, the Enid News & Eagle published a story confirming incumbent Gov. Mary Fallin’s endorsement of the Tulsa businessman.
“I, of course being Republican, support Kevin Stitt as the candidate because I think he will keep up a lot of the things we’ve done to make Oklahoma more business-friendly,” said Fallin, who holds a staggeringly low 13.8 percent approval rating, according to recent polling.
After Stitt spoke to the Bethany crowd, Sean Murphy of the Associated Press asked him to discuss Fallin’s endorsement.
“We didn’t obviously ask for her endorsement,” Stitt said. “Here’s the deal, my skill set, I’ve never been in politics. My opponent is more like the current administration than I am. I’m just so much different than the career politicians like my opponent or the current administration.”
Having shaken Stitt’s hand when he arrived at the event and having met him twice before, I posed a follow up question. I asked him to identify “one or two policy positions where you feel you’re the most different from Gov. Fallin.”
Stitt cut me off: “Now who do you work for again?”
I replied “NonDoc,” described our online publication and tried to reference how one of our writers profiled him during the runoff.
“Let me talk to everybody first, and I’ll follow back up with you,” Stitt said before walking off stage.
After most of the room had cleared, I got a chance to repeat my question about policy areas where Stitt differs from Fallin.
“Edmondson said that he wouldn’t reform state government at all, that there’s nothing he would do differently, so I really want to talk about the difference between me and Edmondson because we’ve got a broken system,” Stitt said. “When I talk about our $20 billion budget — 120 different agencies — the governor has got to have the authority to run those agencies effectively and efficiently. That means the authority to hire and fire the agency heads. That’s a total policy difference from my predecessor. That’s a total policy difference from other career politicians. He has no clue what to do or how to run anything. All he talks about is, ‘We are going to raise taxes.'”
After Edmondson spoke in Shawnee, I asked him similar questions about Fallin’s endorsement of Stitt and Stitt’s assertion that Edmondson is more like Fallin than he is.
“Basically her administration was pretty much laissez faire: ‘We’re not going to increase revenues, we’re going to hope the economy solves problems, and we are actually going to cut taxes.’ And I hear much of that from Mr. Stitt,” Edmondson said. “He has offered no plan to provide the increased funding for education he says he supports. He’s talked about growth in the economy taking care of that, and that’s classic Mary Fallin.
“Mary Fallin has endorsed him, he has described her as ‘great.’ I don’t think people should expect anything else but another four years of Mary Fallin if Kevin Stitt is elected. He has been asked where he differs with her on policy issues, and at least in my presence or from what I’ve read, he has not offered any specifics on that score at all.”
I relayed my experience asking Stitt the same question and then turned the tables by noting how Fallin’s political career began with a 1990 election to the Legislature. Edmondson was elected to the Legislature 16 years earlier and held other positions — including that of Oklahoma attorney general — for decades.
“So how do you counter the criticism that, well, Drew Edmondson was there for a long time and we need a fresh face in Kevin Stitt?” I asked.
The former prosecutor deadpanned.
“There are going to be some people that vote that way, and I hope if they ever need brain surgery they get the youngest doctor they can find with the least experience,” Edmondson said. “My policies, my direction is 180 degrees off Mary Fallin, and his seem to be in sync with her.”
In a phone interview, Libertarian gubernatorial nominee Chris Powell functionally agreed with both men, making the case that each is a lot like Fallin.
“For me, it’s hard to say which one of my two opponents would be most like Gov. Fallin,” Powell said. “Kevin Stitt, he is a Republican. Most of the things that he says are very similar to her positions, and there’s a lack of knowledge of how state government operates both officially and unofficially that he’s going to deal with.”
He criticized Stitt for not voting in past gubernatorial elections, and he pointed fingers at Edmondson for being in office when harsh criminal justice policies were put in place.
“Looking at Drew Edmondson, you’re looking at a career politician who has been part of the status quo and part of the establishment during the time all these problems that we are trying to deal with now were created,” Powell said.
Edmondson on Medicaid expansion: ‘It would have helped’
One policy on which Stitt agrees with Fallin is her rejection of federal dollars for Medicaid expansion, a topic central to Edmondson’s campaign.
In Shawnee, Edmondson said accepting a 90 percent federal match to expand Medicaid eligibility would help more than 150,000 working Oklahomans access health care while simultaneously supporting rural hospitals that are struggling financially, if not closing outright.
“In my opinion the failure to do so was the single worst decision of government that I have seen in my lifetime. I don’t know if that would have saved Pauls Valley Hospital. I don’t know. I do know it would have helped,” Edmondson said to applause. “I don’t know if it would have saved the hospital in Wilburton, but it would have helped. I don’t know if it would have saved the hospital in Sayre or the hospital in Eufaula or the hospital in Frederick, but I do know it would have helped.”
In Bethany, Stitt also discussed Medicaid, but only as it related to how the Oklahoma Health Care Authority’s appropriations — and federal monies — have increased over the past decade.
“We are the only state in the country that the governor doesn’t have the authority to run how that Medicaid is spent because the governor does not appoint that person,” Stitt said.
Edmondson staffers, however, say their candidate’s commitment to Medicaid expansion is being well received in rural communities where hospitals are often struggling.
“It was the right thing to do eight years ago, and it didn’t get done,” Edmondson said in Shawnee. “It’s going to get done next year when I’m governor of the state of Oklahoma.”
Group seeks ‘pro-business’ money to hit Edmondson
Plenty of people do not want Drew Edmondson to achieve his goal of becoming governor. As attorney general, he angered powerful poultry farmers in eastern Oklahoma. In 2016, he led opposition to a state question supported by the state’s most notable agriculture interests. And don’t forget his position on oil and gas taxes.
“You have an avowed liberal who is saying exactly what he is going to do,” Republican Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan told the Bethany coffee shop before introducing Stitt on Friday. “A lot of times we take for granted that we are a red state or even a red county. A lot of people now think we are purple.”
As evidenced by the wave of TV ads supporting Edmondson and attacking Stitt from Stronger Oklahoma — an independent expenditure effort supported by the Democratic Governors Association — political operatives across the spectrum believe Oklahoma’s gubernatorial race is in play.
That narrative is also being used by a business-focused independent expenditure called the Foundation for Economic Prosperity, which ran ads supporting Mick Cornett in the GOP runoff-primary. The organization’s most notable ad of the general election (so far) painted Edmondson as a madman with a wrecking ball headed for Oklahoma’s economy.
Now, the organization is telling supporters the race between Stitt and Edmondson has “tightened dramatically since August” in an attempt to raise money.
“It is imperative that pro-business, third-party groups engage in the Governor’s race to highlight differences between the candidates on issues, as well as political ideologies, among the electorate,” reads an FEP memo dated Oct. 9. “To accommodate this, $600,000 in paid media is needed for two rounds of third-party advertising attacking Edmondson’s record between October 15 and November 6.”
The full document is embedded below, though the source of legislative polls referenced within remains unclear:
Powell: ‘I’m just a regular guy’
With Stitt, Edmondson and supporting third-party groups scrambling to place as large of media buys as possible in the final three weeks of the campaign, the election will come down to the most basic of factors: turnout.
“This situation requires no expert commentary to be understood,” OU political science professor Keith Gaddie said when asked to summarize the race and Fallin’s controversial endorsement of Stitt. “No one wants her brand wrapped around them.”
Other primary narratives include the state’s new medical marijuana law and, of course, education. (The Frontier’s Brianna Bailey attended the same Bethany event for Stitt and examined what the Tulsa publication termed “Kevin Stitt’s teacher problem.”)
But Powell, the Libertarian nominee, could factor into the race’s outcome as well, though he has far less money and name recognition than then-third-party challenger Gary Richardson did in Oklahoma’s 2002 gubernatorial race.
“You’ve got a career politician and a multi-millionaire CEO, and I’m just a regular guy with a job and a family,” Powell said. “They’re both part of the two establishment parties who want to continue concentrating power at the state Capitol, and I’m a Libertarian who wants to disperse that power back out to the people.”
(Clarification: This story was updated at 1 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 18, to note Chris Powell was interviewed over the phone.)