(Editor’s note: This article chronicles recent campaign stops by Kevin Stitt. A separate article from the same author chronicles recent campaign stops by Joy Hofmeister.)
LAWTON / CACHE — The campaigns of incumbent Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and Democratic challenger Joy Hofmeister might agree on one thing: The battleground for votes in the last week before the election lies in rural Oklahoma, where the issue of whether school vouchers favored by Stitt would harm small public schools has drawn both candidates to campaign far from metro areas and dive deep into one-water-tower towns.
For Stitt, these campaign stops have been aimed at blunting the effect of negative TV advertising and promoting voter turnout from his agricultural base — especially important because some polling has shown him lagging behind Hofmeister in conservative western Oklahoma, an unusual circumstance for a GOP incumbent.
A key campaign trail event for the governor occurred last week in Lawton, where what was originally billed as a rural Oklahoma forum was held by the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association and the Oklahoma Farm Bureau.
A pro-Stitt crowd of about 120 farmers and ranchers from the area packed the Prairie Building’s Crystal Creek Room at the Comanche County Fairgrounds. But Hofmeister did not attend. The day before, her campaign staff had told organizers and media that her schedule prohibited her attendance because she was embarking on a 50-stop bus tour of rural Oklahoma — a tour where she told voters that Stitt’s voucher plan would kill small public schools. (The Hofmeister campaign’s first published stop on the tour was scheduled for the day after the Lawton forum.)
Without Hofmeister in attendance, the Lawton forum turned into a Q&A session with only Stitt, and education immediately became a focus.
Talking school vouchers in rural Oklahoma
Stitt said his administration has spent more on public education than any predecessor. He said a $25 million negative television advertising campaign funded by “dark money” political action committees — which he believes are supported largely by leaders of Native American tribes who have endorsed Hofmeister — is misleading voters about his support for public education.
“That’s 25 million reasons my opponent will be beholden to special interests if elected,” Stitt said.
Stitt backs Republican candidate Ryan Walters in the race to replace Hofmeister as the state’s superintendent of public instruction. Like Stitt, Walters has promoted a plan to use tax dollars to help parents pay for private school tuition for their children. Walters arrived at the forum after Stitt began speaking, but he did not address the group.
Joy Hofmeister hammers voucher threat in rural Oklahoma by Michael Duncan
Stitt seemed to be in his element at the farmer and rancher forum. He arrived early, speaking in the foyer to people wearing cowboy hats and boots about the current drought’s impact on hay cuttings and pond levels, as well as inflation’s effect on the price of feed.
Chattanooga cattle rancher and wheat farmer JoAnn Fischer said that after hearing Stitt speak, she was no longer concerned that he would harm her local school.
“They say he is taking $5,000 away from our students there in Chattanooga. That’s no good. We need all that,” Fischer said. “Well, all that was coming from this other person. The black market, or whatever, is putting that out, because [Stitt] is not taking that away, the way it appeared to me.”
The day before, Stitt spoke at a “meet and greet” on the Cameron University campus in Lawton. The early afternoon event was held in an over-sized student union ballroom, and half of the 40 attendees were retirement-age voters. There were a handful of students, but they were mostly Stitt campaign volunteers who greeted people at the door.
“Are you all parents?” Stitt asked as he entered the room.
“I’m a refugee from California and from that communist governor,” one man replied.
Stitt wasted no time addressing the issue of school funding and the political ads.
“Special interests are trying to buy this election,” he said.
He acknowledged that the blitzkrieg of negative campaign advertising against him is difficult to ignore.
“I had to call my mom and make sure she still loved me after seeing all those ads,” Stitt said. “Don’t believe this stuff about how I’m trying to defund the schools. My friends sent me these flyers. They said, ‘They’ve mailed me this flier that says you’re trying to close down my school.’ I’m like, do people really believe that? It is unbelievable. No. I will protect our rural schools.”
Stitt then turned the topic of education on Hofmeister, blaming her, as the head of the state school board, for shutting down public schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“My opponent fought me to close down a school for up to 355 days,” Stitt said. “She was siding with the big unions to keep kids out of schools. I was fighting like crazy to keep them in schools. Now we’re seeing the learning losses.”
Stitt said student test scores have fallen “very far.”
“Fourth grade reading dropped 12 points. Eighth grade math dropped eight points. People are waking up. The kids who could afford it the least were the ones affected,” Stitt said. “The rich kids were in the private schools the whole time. Some of the poorest families of poorer school districts in inner city Tulsa and Oklahoma City were shut down and are the ones I was fighting so hard for. It was so unfair.”
In one 36-hour period, Stitt made six appearances in southwest Oklahoma: in Lawton, Cache, Chickasha and Tuttle. Over the next week, his campaign would take him northwest to Woodward and southeast to Atoka.
At each stop, a main goal of Stitt’s message was to counter the notion that he opposes public education.
“I attended first grade in Wayne and public school in Norman,” he said.
Another goal was to criticize Hofmeister’s tenure as state superintendent by pointing to declining test scores.
“My opponent has been in charge of education the last eight years and literally ran it into the ground,” he said. “In Oklahoma, we don’t give somebody a promotion if they were terrible at their last job.”
He also attacked Hofmeister for running as a Democrat.
“There has never been a greater difference between a red state and a blue state — what I call common sense versus craziness,” he said. “My opponent has joined the crazy party. The lockdown party. She has joined the party that wants to put their thumb on — wants to stamp out oil and gas.”
‘We are not going to let anybody ban Ford F-250s’
At Cameron University, Stitt opened the meeting up to questions from the audience.
Pat Carter, a retired chemist from Lawton, asked Stitt to put a stop to all vaccines. She said pharmaceutical companies are poisoning the public and echoed conspiracy theories about the COVID vaccine.
“Did you know that Lucifer at 66.6 milliliters is in the COVID vaccine?” she asked Stitt.
Stitt skirted the question and told Carter the regulation of vaccines is largely a federal issue and she should contact her congressman. But he said he obtained legislation making it illegal for schools to require COVID vaccinations for children, and he said he sued the federal government to prevent requirements for vaccinations for the National Guard.
Moments later, a man in the audience said he was concerned about Stitt’s support for Canoo, a startup electric vehicle manufacturer that Stitt pledged state incentives and vehicle purchases toward if the company builds a plant in Oklahoma. The man said he was alarmed by Stitt’s support for an electric vehicle manufacturer and feared it would hurt Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry.
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Stitt said Oklahoma is open to all manufacturers and that the state’s support for renewable energy was an advantage for recruiting industry. He also said the state has some of the least expensive electricity rates in the country as a result of using a combination of fossil fuels, wind and solar.
“We are an all-of-the-above everything state. You don’t have to worry about that,“ he said.
Stitt said he would not take any action that would threaten the oil and gas sector and would oppose any restrictions on vehicles powered by fossil fuels.
“We are not going to let anybody ban Ford F-250s so long as I’m governor. It’s not going to happen,” Stitt said. The audience erupted in applause.
Recent public opinion polling has Stitt campaign staffers on edge. While they are comfortable with the governor’s lead in Tulsa and eastern Oklahoma, they have privately acknowledged Stitt is behind in Oklahoma County — not a surprise, given that Stitt lost the county to Democrat Drew Edmondson in the 2018 election.
What has caused concern are disappointing poll results showing a tight race in traditionally strong Republican strongholds in western Oklahoma wheat farm country — places where rural schools serve as the glue that holds small communities together.
At Bar-S and Lil’ Mama’s
On his southwest Oklahoma tour, Stitt met with 25 of the 347 Bar-S Foods employees during a shift change at the sprawling hot dog plant on the outskirts of Lawton. It was a much younger audience than other stops, as the workers in attendance were men under the age of 40. Stitt heard some of the same questions about public education funding, electric cars and also safety of school children.
After a walk through of the plant, which produces more than 147 million pounds of hot dogs a year, Stitt’s entourage of campaign staffers and security hurried west to the town of Cache, population 2,930, where he spoke for 30 minutes to 20 people at Lil’ Mama’s, a small diner.
At the diner, Stitt reiterated his early campaign stop statements that he would protect rural schools and blamed Hofmeister for closing schools during the pandemic.
He said his accomplishments as governor have included a large teacher pay raise — “I’ve put more money in education than any governor in history, and we’re going to continue to do that” — low unemployment and a booming economy.
As Stitt exited the building, he told diner owner Michelle Studebaker he would be back.
“This is awesome, I’m going to come back here and try — well, it looks like it’s the chicken fried steak I’m going to try,” he said.
Stitt and his entourage of staffers and security then drove to Chickasha for a meeting with employees of a horse trailer manufacturer.
Studebaker, a Cache native who has operated Lil’ Mama’s since 2012, said she agreed with Stitt’s position on keeping schools open during the pandemic.
“I haven’t looked into him that much. The things I do see I agree with. Like making sure that everybody was back in school (during the pandemic),” she said. “Because being from a small town you hear everybody complaining that kids are not in school, or having to do school over the computer and stuff like that. So, getting everybody back was really big.”
She said after hearing the governor speak in her diner, she was leaning in favor of him. Studebaker said it made an impact that he took the time to come to her small town.
A week later, Hofmeister would have a campaign stop planned for Cache.
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