A deep-pocketed political newcomer and Republican businessman from Tulsa will face a longtime Democratic Party stalwart and former attorney general in November’s gubernatorial election.
Kevin Stitt beat former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff, taking 54.5 percent of the vote. He will face Democrat Drew Edmondson and Libertarian Chris Powell, who beat Rex Lawhorn in that party’s runoff.
The Stitt-Edmondson race will be a study in contrasts, with Stitt positioning himself as a Donald Trump-like outsider — with none of the president’s baggage — bringing business acumen to the governor’s mansion and state government. But Stitt will need allies in the Legislature and capable appointees to major state agencies to help him deliver on his promise to make Oklahoma a “top 10 state.”
“Oklahoma’s turnaround – it starts right here, right now,” Stitt said at his victory party in Jenks. “Oklahomans have spoken, and we want change. This victory isn’t about Republicans and Democrats or rural versus urban. Tonight’s victory is about Oklahomans ending politics as usual and the status quo that has left our state in last place. My passion and my vision has always been to bring Oklahoma into a top 10 state.”
Stitt will be able to draw on his own personal wealth — he’s loaned his campaign $3.2 million and raised another $3.1 million so far — and a Republican-leaning electorate that gave Trump 65 percent of the vote in the 2016 election.
“He’s not afraid of spending his own money in this endeavor,” said James Davenport, a professor of political science at Rose State College. “But he is a very quick study. He listens to people and takes what he’s doing seriously.”
Edmondson, meanwhile, can hammer on Stitt’s lack of experience to appeal to voters who have endured budget turmoil and agency cuts under Republican rule at the State Capitol. He can also sell himself as a counterweight to some of the partisan extremism in the Legislature.
Edmondson said Oklahomans on the campaign trail have told him they want better schools, access to hospitals and services for veterans. He said they want leadership at the Capitol and are tired of political slogans and mudslinging.
“We can’t afford four more years of the same flawed policies and misguided schemes that have pulled us to the bottom in so many important areas like education, health care and mental health,” Edmondson said in a statement Tuesday night as he congratulated Stitt for winning the GOP runoff.
Stitt faced questions about his business record in the GOP primary and runoff, with opponents saying his Gateway Mortgage Group had questionable lending practices in the years leading up to the financial crisis a decade ago.
“It would not be surprising to see Edmondson or some outside groups spending money to hammer on the issue that the business record isn’t as great as it sounds,” Davenport said.
It didn’t take long for the Democratic Governors Association to pull out a hammer. The association released a statement Tuesday evening tying Stitt to outgoing Gov. Mary Fallin and calling Stitt “little more than a corrupt businessman who preyed on innocent people as CEO at one of the ‘shadiest’ mortgage companies in country.”
Still, the electorate is in an unsettled mood. Republican voters have rebelled against many incumbents in this election cycle, with a dozen lawmakers losing in either the primary or the runoff.
Rural voters in the eastern part of the state could be the swing constituency in the gubernatorial race. Edmondson will be hoping for an energized group of Democrats in the Oklahoma City area, and particularly in the 5th congressional district, where well-organized Democrat Kendra Horn faces Republican incumbent Steve Russell. Stitt appears likely to win his home base in the Tulsa area, which has been more reliably Republican in recent elections.
Rural voters favored Stitt in the GOP runoff, but Edmondson’s history on the ballot and family name will be a comfort to many longtime rural Democrats, said Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. Edmondson is a former Muskogee County district attorney.
“Stitt doesn’t poll as well against Edmondson, but in many ways, he’s a much more dangerous candidate,” Gaddie said. “He is from banking and business. He’s not a politician. But he does present well and is a very quick study. He’s a Norman kid who lives in Tulsa and he’s going to start with a strong foundation in the country already.”
Education could be another flashpoint. One of the few ways Stitt differed with Cornett in the runoff was over the need for a $430 million tax increase in the spring, in part to pay for higher teacher salaries. Stitt said he wouldn’t have signed the bill if he had been governor because it didn’t include education reforms. Edmondson, meanwhile, marched next to teachers as they staged a nine-day walkout at the Capitol in April.
John Wood, a political science professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, said the teacher walkout was less partisan than it appeared at the time.
“The reality is it was actually a moderate Republican thing,” Wood said. “Moderate Republicans were saying, ‘Look, we like education, and it’s important.’ In our state, a lot of our teachers or educators are Republicans. This whole idea of consolidation and the whole idea of not paying teachers and not having the school system in a stable way hurts small towns. I think a lot of moderate Republicans realized this was going on and that’s why there’s been so many more Republicans running for office.”
Stitt, in his victory speech, said he will be focused on the future.
“Isn’t that what we’re here for? To give our children and grandchildren a brighter future where they can accomplish everything they want to in our state,” Stitt said. “As your next governor, my promise to you is that I’m always going to be focused on strengthening all Oklahoma families for the next generation, and not the next election.”