(Correction: This article was updated at 2:50 p.m. Tuesday, April 6, to correct a misstatement regarding which candidate the Senate Majority Fund is supporting. NonDoc regrets the error.)
News coverage of the special election in Senate District 22 — the only legislative seat that will be on the April 6 ballot — has been hampered somewhat by one candidate’s refusal to talk to almost anyone in the press.
While Democrat Molly Ooten has done the usual election rounds of interviews and forums, the Republican candidate, Jake Merrick, appears to have been conducting his campaign mainly in person and over social media. His social media activity has been limited to Facebook and Parler after he announced he would no longer be using Twitter on Jan. 9, the day after Donald Trump was banned from the platform.
This will be my final post on Twitter.
President Trump has served his country well. And I do not believe in my heart that his time is over. Nonetheless, he did more in 4 years for this country than most have attempted in a lifetime, and I am thankful. #Trump #wethepeople
— Jake A. Merrick (@JakeAMerrick) January 9, 2021
The approach did not seem to hurt Merrick in the Republican primary, however, when he walked away with 58.4 percent of the vote. And Ooten faces a steep uphill fight in SD 22, regardless of media strategies.
According to the latest numbers from the Oklahoma State Election Board, there are more than twice as many Republicans registered in the district than Democrats. The seat, which was vacated after U.S. Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-OK5) was elected to Congress in November, has been comfortably in Republican hands for more than a decade. (Merrick finished fifth in the GOP primary for that 2020 race.)
Bice did not face a Democratic challenger when she first captured the seat in 2014, she and won her next two elections with sizable leads. Former Sen. Rob Johnson, who held the seat before Bice, did not face a Democratic opponent either. (Johnson tried to run for the seat again in this election, but was one of two candidates stricken from the ballot over eligibility issues.)
Ooten recently told The Oklahoman that she is optimistic about overcoming the numerical disadvantage by focusing on voter registration and turnout.
“When Democrats show up, we get elected,” she said. “In special elections, those are races where the general electorate just doesn’t show up, and if we can get a hefty group of our folks to show up, we typically have a good chance of winning those races.”
The Oklahoman recently reported that Ooten had raised approximately $16,000 more than Merrick, while Merrick has received support from the Senate Majority Fund, a group affiliated with Republican legislative leaders.
Merrick: ‘Fundamental rights are being threatened’
Merrick, a former personal trainer and bodybuilder who co-owns a construction company, is running as a hardline conservative in the Trumpian mold. He has posted frequently in support of the former president, and he has indicated on social media that he believes the 2020 election was illegally stolen from Trump.
His campaign website lists three top legislative priorities: “End abortion in Oklahoma,” “Ensure businesses can stay open” and “Ensure bodily autonomy” for those who wish to forego vaccinations.
In one of the very few interviews Merrick appears to have granted, he told the Yukon Progress that he decided to run because he believes “fundamental rights are being threatened” and he doesn’t want his children to live in a “socialistic Oklahoma.”
“We’re seeing this on a national level. It’s almost far-fetched for some to think about our rights and liberties being challenged and compromised here in Oklahoma because we’ve lived so long as a conservative state enjoying these liberties,” he said. “But we’re seeing a real threat — now more than ever. Not only nationwide, but actually in our home state. So it’s more important than ever that we keep this district red, that we keep it conservative.”
Other posts on Merrick’s campaign Facebook page express support for gun rights, support for the police and military, and his belief that transgender people are following “a lifestyle that I believe is a deviation from God’s best design.”
Ooten leans into local issues
Ooten, a speech pathologist with Oklahoma County SoonerStart, declares on her campaign website, “I’m not a politician. I’ve had enough of their bickering and games.”
She lists five primary campaign issues: education, health care, fostering community, criminal justice reform and support for the LGBTQ+ community.
She told The Oklahoman that she believes she can win Republican votes by focusing on specific issues and problems that are close to home.
“This district is not a monolith,” she said. “The registration looks heavily Republican, but most of the Republicans I’m talking to, they really care about education and health care. Those are the things I’m running on, and the message that I want to put people over an ideology.”
In a candidate forum held by Oklahoma City Free Press (which Merrick did not attend), Ooten spoke about the need for better access to mental health care and said she believes the funding of the court system through fees and fines should be overhauled.
Ooten told The Yukon Progress that she is “running to represent everyone” and that she hopes that message will overcome her party-affiliation disadvantage.
“It’s not about partisanship,” she said. “It’s about doing the work, getting people engaged. At the end of the day, what we will have accomplished — no matter the outcome — is that there are people out there who really care about their voice.”