In a Duncan coffee shop last year, a member of the Oklahoma State Senate and his chief challenger made a promise to run clean campaigns, free of personal attacks. Now, however, both candidates claim they have adhered to that principle while their opponent has not.
In the June 30 primary, incumbent Sen. Paul Scott (R-Duncan) missed winning the Republican nomination for his seat outright in Senate District 43 by just 0.1 percent of the vote. Scott and his top challenger, Jessica Garvin, are preparing for a runoff election Aug. 25 in the Duncan-area seat that Scott has held for the past four years.
Despite the presence of fellow Republican Katy Keith in the race (who spent most of her campaign advocating to outlaw abortion), the GOP primary was defined by conflict between Scott and Garvin, which appears ready to continue.
Scott accused Garvin, who is an administrator for Gregston Nursing Home and West Wind Assisted Living Center in Marlow, of being a “liberal political insider,” and he created the website TruthAboutGarvin.com to provide evidence of his claims. Though Garvin ended the primary 10 points behind Scott, with 39 percent of the vote, she and Keith prevented him from winning an outright majority, forcing the seat into a runoff.
The southwest Oklahoma Senate district represents nearly 80,000 residents of the cities of Duncan, Pauls Valley, Washington and more. The winner of the August election will face Democrat Terri Reimer in November. Reimer, who is a social studies teacher at Marlow Public Schools, is not actively campaigning.
Garvin announced her challenge to Scott more than a year ago in May 2019, and she has been campaigning ever since. Though Garvin said she knew others who planned on running, she was worried they didn’t have a vision for the district and were just running to oust Scott. That motivated her to toss her hat in the ring early.
“To be completely honest, it was like the last thing I ever imagined myself doing,” Garvin said. “I wanted to make sure that somebody who felt called to public service was running for the right reasons, and I just felt like if that was gonna happen it was kinda up to me.”
The truth about Garvin?
Scott, who also works in the health care industry and owns Sooner Mobile X-ray, said he launched the website about Garvin to show evidence of what he believes are questionable actions.
“I want to expose the fact that my opponent is an extremely liberal Republican running for office and is supported by primarily the Democratic Party in Oklahoma,” Scott said.
The site includes a theory that Garvin’s campaign is primarily supported by national Democrats hoping to oust a conservative legislator.
“She has been attacking me for over a year, and I have just exposed the facts that the Democratic Party is supporting her and wants to flip the second most conservative seat,” Scott said.
Garvin, who claims she was the first person in her family to register as a Republican, says there’s no validity to Scott’s characterization of her as a liberal politician.
“Contrary to popular belief, I’ve been a conservative my entire life, I’ve been a registered Republican since I was 18 years old,” Garvin said.
Scott’s claims about Garvin are loosely based on a collection of documents he has compiled on the site attacking her. One of these allegations is that she received $175 in donations from a member of Hillary Clinton’s Oklahoma Leadership Council who is active in Democratic consulting in the state.
Garvin admits she received that money but said the couple in question (who are the co-owners of Skyfire Media) are longtime friends and that she has known one of them since elementary school. She also expressed concern that, in criticizing the donation, Scott posted mailers which included the donor’s home address, potentially putting their family in danger.
“It’s important to me to have the same friends now and the same friends afterward,” Garvin said. “She’s my friend, and her political beliefs have nothing to do with why she’s contributed to my campaign.”
Scott’s website also alleges that Garvin tried to convince Democrats to change their party affiliation to Republican to vote for her in the primary. The social media posts in question include reminders that the deadline was approaching for voters to register or switch parties, and that the Republican primary is closed, so only registered Republicans can vote.
“I actually know seven people who switched parties. Five of those were planning on switching anyway, and the other two didn’t even vote for me,” Garvin said. “All these people you’re considering liberals would not be caught dead registered as a Republican.”
Despite launching the website lambasting Garvin, Scott says he has upheld the agreement to not make negative personal attacks.
“I did not go negative first,” Scott said. “Whenever she walked out of that little coffee shop in Duncan, she started saying I’m unethical, she started saying, ‘We need ethical leadership in the Capitol, we need someone with integrity,’ and all these things. So basically, over the year, she’s been calling me a cheater and a liar, which itself is a lie.”
Garvin maintained she had not made any attacks on Scott.
“I think, unfortunately, when people get desperate, they’ll do anything to win — do anything to be successful — and I’m just not that desperate,” she said.
‘A proven record’
In seeking his second Senate term, Scott is touting his experience as an asset to SD 43 if he is re-elected.
“Experience leads to establishing relationships,” Scott said. “I have a proven record. I was ranked the No. 2 ‘most conservative’ state senator this year. Also, I have a proven record of being a constitutional supporter and being a Second Amendment supporter.”
Scott was first elected in 2016, ousting then-incumbent Sen. Corey Brooks in the primary. During that campaign, Scott issued mailers critical of Brooks’ residency because he owned a home in another state. In 2017, Scott received attention for being one of the first Republican legislators to support raising the gross production tax in order to fund teacher pay raises. His experience in the Legislature, he argues, will allow him to serve constituents better than Garvin.
“Inexperience a lot of times is very expensive,” Scott said. “You don’t have the ability to take care of your constituents just because you are elected to office.”
In the past four years, Scott has also received attention for a series of incidents, including:
- his diatribe on possible ramifications for the Thunder if players kneeled during the national anthem;
- a prank on a female colleague that involved sabotaging her chair on the Senate floor;
- and a disputed interaction with a police officer while receiving a speeding ticket.
Scott said he has since apologized to his colleagues for the prank on the Democratic senator, which he characterized as part of a tradition of playing jokes on freshmen members to welcome them to the Senate.
“I sincerely apologize for my un-professional behavior on the Senate floor. It was disrespectful to the decorum of the Senate Floor,” Scott wrote in a March 2019 letter to all senators. “Please know that I will not act in that manner again. It is a privilege to serve and I will respect the Senate floor decorum going forward.”
According to Garvin, these events played into her decision to run.
“There are decisions that have been made that haven’t represented our district in a professional light, in a positive light,” Garvin said. “I just felt like in order for us to have a respected voice at the Capitol, something had to change.”
Scott is vice chairman of the Senate Select Agencies Committee, and he also serves on the Appropriations and Budget, Education, General Government and Health and Human Services committees. He has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), Senate Appropriations and Budget Chairman Roger Thompson (R-Okemah), the NRA, Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights, and the Oklahoma 2nd Amendment Association.
On the issues
Garvin’s top three priorities are addressing mental health and substance abuse problems, supporting rural economic development and improving educational outcomes. She said that while she does not necessarily see increased government spending as a way to address the issues.
“In Oklahoma, we do not do a good job, or really much of a job at all, about addressing mental health problems and substance abuse,” Garvin said, citing high rates of incarceration and crowded foster care systems in the state.
Health care and addiction are also important issues to Scott, who said he wants to work to ensure better health outcomes in the state, especially for Oklahomans suffering from addiction.
“I would like to see better outcomes from the (State Question) 802 passage, and the money we will be getting from the federal government, and that means physically, mentally, rehabilitation,” Scott said.
Garvin wants to aid what she sees as dying rural communities through bringing in new revenue streams to promote economic development. Garvin also hopes to improve educational outcomes by highlighting options for high school graduates other than college, such as the military or trade schools.
“We just don’t teach our kids that they all don’t have to be on the same path,” Garvin said.
Scott originally ran to bring efficiency to the state, which he sees as a lasting issue as Oklahoma continues to face revenue shortfalls. COVID-19, Scott said, has also shown that state agencies can be run virtually to an extent, which could potentially help the state save money on office space.
“I ran four years ago because, as a businessman, I thought that I could bring some things to the state to get our state to be more efficient,” he said.
Scott characterized himself as more socially conservative than Garvin, who has expressed support for adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes. She has also supported the use of contraception pills in cases of rape.
One month more
Voters in SD 43 will vote in the runoff Aug. 25. Scott, who is feeling fairly confident about the election, said he is upset the runoff will cost the taxpayers when the result already seems clear.
“The race wasn’t close at all. I had a pretty decisive victory,” Scott said. “So now, it’s gonna cost taxpayers for that runoff. It was a decisive victory to start with, but with our laws, it’s gonna cost the state of Oklahoma another election.”
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Garvin said her campaign strategy has not changed, and while the coronavirus pandemic put her behind on meeting voters, she hopes that when she does she can convince them to vote for her.
In May, Garvin received criticism for her practice of campaigning door-to-door without wearing a mask, spurred by a Facebook comment on one of her posts. According to Garvin, that woman was the only one who expressed concern, and the other candidates were also out knocking doors at the same time. Though she said she was sorry the woman felt endangered, it has not stopped her from knocking doors.
“It’s really getting out in front of people more,” she said. “I said from day one I want a positive campaign, so just continuing to project who I am, no matter what is read about me, that I’m not gonna play dirty, I’m not gonna fight like that.”
(Update: This story was updated at 9:20 a.m. Monday, Aug. 10, to clarify reference to a 2016 mail piece.)