Incumbent, former and recently-elected Oklahoma lawmakers contributed nearly $100,000 to state House and Senate campaigns between Aug. 9 and Nov. 1, reports filed with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission show. 

State ethics guidelines allow lawmakers to contribute to political campaigns up to $2,900 per race. Those contributions may come from personal or campaign funds.

An Oklahoma Watch review found that most legislators who contributed to candidates from their party — several of whom won unopposed this year or are term-limited — opted to transfer campaign funds. 

Top donors during the nearly three-month period include Republican House Speaker Charles McCall, House Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat. Republican donations outnumbered Democratic contributions by nearly 10 to 1.

Contributions can add up quickly in state House and Senate races, where candidates seek to represent districts of 35,000 to 80,000 residents and often raise less than $100,000 in an election cycle. For instance, about 16% of contributions House District 13 Republican candidate Neil Hays received from early August through late October came from state lawmakers. 

Former Ethics Commission Vice Chairman Charlie Laster proposed blocking candidate-to-candidate campaign fund transfers in 2018, citing concerns that the donations could create a conflict of interest and give lawmakers undue power over who serves alongside them. Reached by phone, Laster said the proposal failed to gain traction and was ultimately abandoned. 

Among the top targets for Oklahoma lawmakers this year is the House District 45 race in east Norman, where legislators have contributed $14,300 to Republican Teresa Sterling and $4,9000 to Democrat Annie Menz since Aug. 9. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Merelyn Bell, who defeated her Republican challenger by a 3.2% margin in 2020, announced in April she would not seek reelection. 

Sterling said she’s been pleasantly surprised by the donations from Republican lawmakers, adding that hasn’t spoken directly with many of the contributors. The retired Oklahoma City Police Department officer said she’s mostly used the funds to send direct mail flyers to voters.

Sterling, an advocate for school voucher programs and expanding resources for the elderly, said the contributions will do little to sway her if elected. 

“I don’t know these people, I have never associated with these people and I will vote my own mind,” she said. “I’m not going to allow people who donate to me to dictate how I vote or what legislation I write.” 

Menz, a U.S. Navy veteran and former legislative assistant in the State Senate, said lawmakers are likely aware of the close 2020 contest and the potential for another tight race.  But the Democratic candidate isn’t convinced that lawmakers on both sides are making donations for the sole purpose of flipping or maintaining a seat. 

“Both my opponent and I are impressive people,” she said. “I’ve got a lot that I’m bringing to the table, and both sitting and former legislators know that I’m worth every penny. It’s not about that Democrat running for that seat, but Annie Menz, she’s worth this.” 

Menz said there’s an understanding within the Democratic caucus that a campaign donation is not grounds to negotiate a vote decision or stance on an issue. 

“It’s not a transactional relationship,” Menz said. “They [legislative donors] understand that I’ve gone door to door for months now and told people I want this process that doesn’t leave anyone behind and that I’m here to work for the people. They’re not trying to buy me, so I don’t anticipate there being conflicts.” 
While the candidates disagree on school voucher programs, they both support eliminating the state grocery sales tax and oppose the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s plan to build two turnpikes in Norman.

Keaton Ross covers democracy and criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.

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