In a year when the majority of Republicans running for Congress believe or question whether the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Bice is taking a more traditional GOP approach as she runs for reelection in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District against Democratic challenger Joshua Harris-Till and independent David Frosch.
Bice, 48, has held the office since 2020, when she beat incumbent Kendra Horn, who had been in office for one term and was the first Democrat to hold the seat in decades.
When the Republican-controlled state Legislature completed its redistricting work in late 2021, CD 5 had gained GOP-heavy areas like Yukon, Guthrie and Lincoln County. Meanwhile, south Oklahoma City and a swath of northwest OKC were removed, added into CD 3, which otherwise sprawls western Oklahoma.
Before going to Congress, Bice had representing northwest OKC in the Oklahoma State Senate for six years. Before that, she worked in her family’s technology company and ran a marketing business.
Bice was one of only 36 GOP representatives to back the January 6 Commission last year (a vote that provided some fodder to her opponent in the Republican primary). She has criticized the subsequent House committee investigation into the U.S. Capitol attack, calling it a partisan Democratic production. She also backed an objection to the certification of the 2020 election results.
Although Bice is not running a fire and brimstone campaign like some of her GOP counterparts this year, she is more than able to rattle off criticisms of President Joe Biden, whom she blames for inflation and for stifling Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry.
“At the very beginning, when I was elected to Congress, one of the first things that President Biden did was launch a full-on assault on the oil and gas industry, and that had an immediate impact on energy prices, which trickles down,” Bice said.
Harris-Till, 32, believes Bice is not focused on the issues that affect Oklahoma the most. Harris-Till previously worked in former U.S. Rep. Dan Boren’s office and also served as the national president for Young Democrats of America. He has been active in politics for about 10 years, unsuccessfully running for Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District in 2014 and 2016.
“There’s work that can be accomplished, but we’re never going to make progress on those problems if our elected officials are going to be worried about issues that don’t affect the district,” Harris-Till said. “When Stephanie Bice was in the State Senate she was more moderate and solution-focused. I think D.C. just got to her.”
‘The energy conversation is first and foremost’
Republicans have pounced, laying the blame for all of that at the feet of Biden. Bice said she sees increased oil and gas production in the U.S. as a way out of some of those lingering economic problems, but she believes the Biden administration is standing in the way.
“Republicans have been beating the drum demanding this administration stop the assault and let American companies drill again,” Bice said, “and particularly in Oklahoma, where 25 percent of our state revenue comes from the oil and gas industry.”
Biden issued an executive order to put a moratorium on new drilling permits on federal lands early in his presidency, though the moratorium has since been blocked in court. U.S. oil production had reached a record high before taking a plunge in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been climbing since, and production is now around the level it was at in 2018.
Among Bice’s chief criticisms of Biden is what she calls too much focus on renewable energy.
“This administration is really focusing on renewables,” she said. “Why we can’t focus on domestic energy independence is really beyond me. I think that’s one of the first things that you will see a Republican House majority do is focus on bringing down energy prices, because that will impact everyone.”
Bice said people from Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry are frustrated with regulatory delays.
“I met with a local pipeline company not that long ago, and they are frustrated because pipeline permitting used to take six months, and it’s now taking 12 to 18 months,” Bice said. “Without the ability to lay new pipe, to transport energy across the state and across the country, it makes it difficult. Because of that, you see energy companies that cannot produce or increase production, because they don’t have anywhere to ship it.”
Bice said if she is reelected, she will focus on legislation aimed at allowing the state’s energy industry to grow.
“The energy conversation is first and foremost,” she said. “Oklahomans are hurting. They are struggling with paying for groceries and electricity — heating, gas. We have to really push back on the energy policy, or lack thereof, that the administration has.”
Bice said job training would be among her other priorities. She said hiring and retaining staff has become a significant problem for employers in the district.
“There are a variety of reasons for it,” she said. “But I think there are some real opportunities for us to allow for changes to workforce grants or other programs that will train up or train individuals in new areas that put people to work and give them great opportunities to make a living.”
But at a time when some congressional Republicans are signaling their intent to dial back aid to Ukraine as it continues fighting the war with Russia, Bice believes the situation boils down to paying now or paying later.
“At the end of the day, I do want to see some oversight for the funds that have been sent to Ukraine, and I think you’ll see that in the next Congress,” she said. “But the bottom line is, I’d rather be sending some military, financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine versus the Russians and Putin taking Ukraine and feeling emboldened and marching into Poland or Moldova — other NATO countries — and then the United States is forced to send our own service members to combat this assault.”
On reproductive rights and student loan forgiveness, two other issues that have come into the forefront of the midterm elections, Bice is aligned with her party.
“This is a pro-life state. Whether or not individuals agree with the position of the current statutes for Oklahoma, that’s now in the hands of the electorate,” she said. “They have the ability to go before their elected officials and effectuate change. Prior to the Dobbs decision, they didn’t really have that ability.”
Bice said she opposes the Biden administration’s initiative to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for many Americans.
“To forgive these loans, particularly when [many] of these loans are given to folks that graduate with a masters degree and who are making six figures or more, why are we forgiving those loans?” she said. “And the second part is it’s an affront to those individuals that chose not to go to college and maybe attended a community college or a trade school who are providing for their family and are doing really well. They didn’t have the same opportunity to use government dollars to attend a trade school.”
According to Federal Reserve data, households in the top 40 percent by income owe approximately 60 percent of outstanding student debut and make approximately 75 percent of payments. The lowest 40 percent owe 20 percent of outstanding debt and make 10 percent of payments.
‘We’re arguing about things that were established 50 years ago’
This is Harris-Till’s third time running for Congress. He ran for Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District in 2014 and 2016, but he suspended his second campaign when his mother became ill with cancer. The experience made Harris-Till a believer in broadening access to health care for Americans and decoupling health insurance from employment.
“My mom was able to continue her treatment through the [Affordable Care Act] after she was diagnosed and later lost her job,” Harris-Till said. “She was able to use the marketplace to get a specialist and was able to keep her treatment plan in place and her doctor, and she ended up living almost two more years. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to spend those extra moments with her. What I want to do if elected is to make sure that we’re taking care of people the way they should be taken care of.”
Harris-Till’s campaign theme is, “Less about D.C., more about Oklahoma.”
“With a lot of politicians, on the campaign trail they are present and they are doing things in the community, and then they get elected and they go to D.C., and it changes,” he said. “There are formulas that candidates are taught on how to stay in power, how to appeal to national folks so you can get more dollars. If you get into that culture of fundraisers, most of the time you start to become part of the D.C. culture. If I’m elected, I’m going to be spending as much time in the district as possible.”
Though he has positioned himself as an outsider to Washington partisanship, Harris-Till also sees the GOP as the party of “no.”
“The GOP is voting against everything that Democrats propose,” he said. “They even voted against legislation to get more baby formula when there was a shortage. Democrats are saying ‘yes’ to fixing those problems, and Republicans are saying ‘no.’ Democrats are saying ‘yes’ to gay and interracial marriage, and a lot of Republicans are saying ‘no.’ These issues aren’t making anyone’s life better. We’re arguing about things that were established 50 years ago. There are solutions to inflation, but Republicans don’t support them. They say student loan forgiveness is divisive but don’t have anything to say about abuse with the PPP loan forgiveness. None of that makes sense. What we need is people who want to help other folks.”
Where Bice blames inflation on Biden, Harris-Till blames it on the pandemic.
“The reality is the pandemic happened, and the country is trying to adjust to that, and one of the issues that came out of that was inflation,” Harris-Till said. “We weren’t prepared for the pandemic. We should have been. President Trump tossed out a lot of the Obama administration’s preparation for those types of crises.”
A cousin of Emmett Till — a Black teenager who was abducted, tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 — Harris-Till said he supports Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, but he believes Congress does not do enough to promote other paths for those looking to find well-paid careers.
“We haven’t been prioritizing trade schools, and that’s one part of my platform: education,” he said. “Not just four-year universities. We need people to replace those who are retiring in these industries. We also need to teach financial literacy and (find) ways to make college more affordable for those that do want it.”
On reproductive rights, Harris-Till said some laws in GOP-controlled states, including Oklahoma, are too extreme and take health care decisions out of the hands of patients and their doctors.
“It’s crazy to me we can make blanket laws that really inhibit a doctor’s ability to provide care for patients, many of whom are women,” he said. “Their lives have to be in danger before they can act. We shouldn’t have those kinds of constraints.”
If elected, Harris-Till said he does not intend to use the office to stoke his political ambitions.
“My focus isn’t getting the seat and holding it forever or to gain another office,” he said. “The biggest difference between me and Stephanie Bice is I want to serve the district. I don’t want to be on the news or a talking head.”
Independent David Frosch favors universal health care, raising minimum wage
Independent David Frosch is also running for CD 5 as a “worker advocate.” His a campaign platform includes a $15 minimum wage, support for unions and establishing at least 100 days of paid leave for new mothers and guaranteed paid sick leave for all workers.
If elected, Frosch writes on his website that he would work to end child poverty by providing parents with expanded, permanent tax credits. Frosch would also end any work requirements for those participating in SNAP programs.
Frosch also supports access to Medicare for all citizens, tuition-free public colleges and universities, as well as community colleges and trade schools.
(Clarification: This article was updated at 7:50 p.m. to clarify statements related to the January 6 Commission.)