The latest campaign commercial for Gov. Kevin Stitt prominently featuring his appointed attorney general, John O’Connor, is raising eyebrows in political circles and may run afoul of state Ethics Commission rules for electioneering, according to several Republicans and Democrats.
The 30-second commercial began airing on Oklahoma City and Tulsa television stations last week. Advertisement disclosure reports show the Stitt campaign is spending more than $300,000 in the next few weeks on the commercial.
The ad features Stitt’s “Oklahoma Turnaround” with the governor’s accomplishments on state spending transparency, tax cuts and teacher pay raises. The rest of the ad touts his appointment last year of O’Connor and how the pair have fought federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates by the Biden administration, as well as the attorney general’s lawsuits on abortions.
“Stitt and O’Connor fought Biden’s vaccine mandate and won, and led the fight to overturn Roe v. Wade,” the commercial said. “This is Oklahoma’s turnaround.”
Oklahoma’s campaign finance laws don’t allow candidate committees to pay for electioneering communications for another campaign within 30 days of a primary or runoff election. They also have limits, $2,900 per election, on how much a candidate committee can contribute to another candidate’s campaign. The ad buy in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City markets exceeds that limit.
The Stitt campaign said last week it didn’t believe the campaign ad violated electioneering laws. Stitt’s appointment of O’Connor fulfilled his campaign promise for an “Oklahoma Turnaround,” said Donelle Harder, Stitt’s campaign manager.
“Gov. Stitt promised to attract and recruit new Oklahoma leaders who aren’t the old-guard political establishment, and John’s appointment is a promise kept,” Harder said.
Brett Humphrey, O’Connor’s campaign manager, said the attorney general’s campaign would not have any comments about another candidate’s ads. The scenes featuring O’Connor are freely available on his YouTube page.
The primary election is June 28. O’Connor faces Gentner Drummond, a Tulsa attorney and banker, in the Republican primary for attorney general. Stitt has three opponents in the GOP primary for governor.
Oklahoma Watch spoke to several campaign managers not directly involved in the governor’s race or the attorney general’s race. They said they hadn’t seen any commercials like that in recent memory.
The commercial is known as a “split-30” within campaign advertising circles. Normally, such commercials would spend 15 seconds touting a candidate’s accomplishments and the other 15 seconds attacking an opponent. In this case, the first 15 seconds are about Stitt and the other 15 seconds are about Stitt and O’Connor, with the attorney general featuring prominently on the video.
Candidates have occasionally teamed up on 30-second commercials if their campaigns were trying to save money. In those cases, each campaign would clearly state that it approved the message.
Democratic Rep. Collin Walke, who is not running for reelection, said a bipartisan group of House lawmakers plan to send a letter to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater on Tuesday asking him to investigate the Stitt commercial for campaign finance violations.
“I’m shocked and appalled that Stitt doesn’t think the Ethics Commission rules apply to him,” Walke said Monday. “Of course, that’s in line with how he’s been running his administration.”
Former Republican lawmaker and district attorney Rex Duncan was among Republicans raising questions about the commercial. In a series of tweets over the weekend, Duncan said he hoped the attorney general would tell Stitt to stop running the ads.
“As a former prosecutor, I am very troubled by what is clearly an illegal political ad being paid for by Governor Stitt’s campaign. The law clearly states a candidate can’t pay for campaign ads promoting another candidate,” Duncan said in a tweet.
Reached by phone on Monday, Duncan said the commercial makes it appear that Stitt and O’Connor are running as a ticket.
“It makes it look like O’Connor is the governor’s lawyer and the governor is building up the attorney general’s campaign,” Duncan said. “It’s an excellent ad, but it makes you wonder if the governor plans to feature other candidates like the lieutenant governor or others.”
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.