By Sean Murphy
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)- In deep-red Oklahoma, first-term Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, a wealthy businessman whose time in office has been rocked by feuds with tribal nations and members of his own party, finds himself in a surprisingly tough reelection campaign against Democrat Joy Hofmeister.
Hofmeister, 58, the two-term state superintendent of public schools who switched parties to run against Stitt, has been blasting Stitt for his voucher-style plan to divert public education money to private schools.
She launched a 50-stop bus tour through 27 counties in the last week of the campaign to hammer the message, emerging from the coach to the 1970 Three Dog Night hit “Joy to the World.”
“It’s a rural-school killer,” she said in her stump speech.
“And if you kill the school, you kill the community.”
Jack Zedlitz, 48, a lifelong Republican who recently switched to independent, cast his ballot on Tuesday for Hofmeister at the Crown Heights Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma City, saying Stitt’s support of education vouchers was too harmful to public schools.
“One of the unintended consequences is that it will harm some of the most vulnerable school districts that usually educate the poorest and most marginalized communities, Zedlitz said.
The issue is also one that resonates in rural Oklahoma, which in 2018 helped deliver Stitt, 49, a wealthy mortgage company owner and political outsider, the state’s governorship. He won 73 of the state’s 77 counties, many by huge margins, after campaigning on bringing a businessman’s “fresh set of eyes” to state government.
“The turnaround that you elected me to do, it is working,”
Stitt told a crowd of more than 300 gathered at the Crossroads megachurch on Oklahoma City’s south side for a rally last week with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. A separate rally was held with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin in Tulsa.
Stitt boasts of record-level state savings and funding for public schools under his watch, and the state’s rapid emergence from pandemic-related closures that helped the economy rebound quickly and keep the state’s unemployment rate low.
Jessica Perez, 46, cast her ballot Tuesday for Stitt at Oklahoma Christian University and said his oversight of the state during the pandemic appealed to her.
“It didn’t make sense to me that you could go to Home Depot, but not to church,” Perez said. “I believe he’s an effective leader.
What he says he’s going to do, he does.”
Although Democrats haven’t won a statewide election in Oklahoma since 2006, Stitt has faced a barrage of blistering attack ads from dark-money groups. The groups don’t have to report their donors and have spent millions since the June primary hammering his school-voucher plan. Other ads have highlighted his mass release of prisoners and a series of scandals in his administration, including a lucrative no-bid contract with a barbecue restaurant, misspent pandemic relief funds for education and his plans to build a new state mansion.
The dark-money attacks on Stitt and other media boosting Hofmeister follow ongoing feuds Stitt has engaged in with many of the 39 federally recognized Native American tribes, another issue Hofmeister hit hard on the campaign trail.
In one sign Hofmeister posed a stiff challenge, the super PAC for the Republican Governor’s Association launched a late ad buy linking Hofmeister to high gas prices and President Joe Biden, who lost Oklahoma to Donald Trump by more than 33 percentage points and remains very unpopular in the state. Stitt also loaned his campaign $2 million, bringing his total fundraising haul to more than $10 million, more than triple the $3.1 million raised by Hofmeister.
Independent Ervin Yen, an Oklahoma City anesthesiologist and former Republican state senator, and Libertarian Natalie Bruno of Edmond also are running for governor.
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