Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about 2022, the news cycle won’t be letting up.

After two years of political, cultural and financial strife — all while a seemingly never-ending global pandemic continues to disrupt daily life for just about everyone — we could use a break. 

But with looming legislative and legal battles, an election year, and what are sure to be some surprises, it is shaping up to be another eventful year in Oklahoma politics. 

While we don’t know everything that will happen, here is an early look at some of the major stories that will be making headlines in the next 12 months.

How Will Oklahoma Address COVID-19 In Year Three of the Pandemic?

More than 12,400 Oklahomans have died of COVID-19 since the state announced the first death of Oklahoman on March 18, 2020. On a per-capita basis, that amounts to one of the highest death rates in the country. 

The prospects for 2022 are unknown, but the projections are grim. An additional 1,200 to 3,000 Oklahomans will die of COVID-19 the next three months, according to projections from the University of Washington School of Medicine.

That number will depend on the severity, spread and efforts to control the omicron variant. It will also hinge on whether more Oklahomans get vaccinated as a growing body of evidence has shown that vaccines, particularly booster shots for those who need it, are effective in preventing many severe illnesses and deaths. 

One of President Joe Biden’s main tactics to combat the virus is to require the vaccine for many public and private employees. But Oklahoma is challenging those mandates in five separate lawsuits. How those legal challenges play out likely will have a big impact on the state and the course of the pandemic. 

Can a Democrat Retake the Governor’s Office?

Just a few months ago, Gov. Kevin Stitt appeared to be on a relatively easy path toward winning his 2022 re-election bid. 

But Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, a lifelong Republican, upended the race when she announced in mid-October that she is changing parties to challenge Stitt. 

Stitt, as an incumbent and Republican in deep-red Oklahoma, remains the favorite to win the race, something reinforced by early polling. But Hofmeister’s potential to attract independents and moderate Republicans could give Democrats the best chance they’ve had in years.

Hofmeister first will need to win the Democratic nomination. Her only opposition so far is former State Sen. Connie Johnson, who came in second in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2018. 

Will Lankford Survive Challenges to His Right?

One of Oklahoma’s big 2022 races will be decided before the November general election. 

U.S. Sen. James Lankford is seeking his second full six-year term in office. He first will need to claim the GOP primary as he is facing multiple challenges from the right-wing of the Republican party. 

Lankford, so far, is being challenged by a number of Republican candidates. This includes Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, and Jackson Lahmeyer, a Tulsa pastor and political newcomer.

Lankford, who was elected in 2014, is one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate, earning a 95% rating from the American Conservative Union, last year. 

But after Lankford accurately acknowledged that President Biden rightfully won the election, some have accused the senator of not being conservative enough. This includes Lahmeyer, who has won the endorsement of the head of the Oklahoma Republican Party and several of former President Donald Trump’s allies as he has raised unfounded and repeatedly debunked claims about the 2020 presidential election. 

Polling shows that Lankford still has a substantial lead heading into 2022 over his GOP rivals. He will need to secure over 50% to avoid a runoff after the Republican primary. 

Will Republicans Gain More Ground in Down-Ticket Races?

This year will bring elections for the state’s five congressional seats, most of the state legislature and other statewide races including lieutenant general, attorney general and superintendent of public instruction.  

Republicans hold every statewide political office and the GOP domination is greater than ever in the Legislature, with Republicans controlling more than 80% of the state House and Senate seats.

Democrats, who have seen their numbers dwindle in the Legislature over several election cycles, will be looking to reverse course.  But after the GOP-led Legislature passed its redistricting plans, the political map will look even more favorable to the GOP. 

Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District, which currently covers most of Oklahoma County and all of Pottawatomie and Seminole counties, has been the state’s only competitive congressional race since 2012. 

By carving out Democratic-leaning parts of the district and replacing them with more conservative areas in Lincoln County, the southern portion of Logan County and the eastern portion of Canadian County, the district will give Republicans more of an edge.

And in the Legislature, many legislative races will remain largely uncompetitive as the number of firmly Republican or Democratic districts — a number already high by national standards — grew slightly. 

Scandals in the Legislature?

There’s been no shortage of political scandals at the State Capitol over the years, from personal indiscretions to criminal convictions. The latest could force out the state House of Representatives’ second-ranking member.

House Speaker Pro Tem Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa, and his wife were indicted on multiple charges in Oklahoma County District Court in mid-December. The charges allege that O’Donnell didn’t publicly disclose a potential conflict of interest when he voted on legislation that would benefit his wife when she was put in charge of a Catoosa Tag Agency. 

The Tulsa World reported that the fallout from the charges remains unknown. 

O’Donnell has, so far, rejected calls for him to resign. An indictment referring to others involved in the alleged conspiracy and references to phone calls between O’Donnell and a  “high-ranking state official” leaves the possibility of others being implicated. 

What will you be watching for in the new year? Let me know what political stories or events you have your eye on by emailing me at tbrown@oklahomawatch.org or finding me on Twitter at @tbrownokc.

The Top Story

A row of cells are seen in the Tulsa County Jail’s mental health pod. The pod holds inmates who are unable to live in the general population area of the jail due to a mental illness. Tulsa County is the only jail in the state with a mental health facility. (Photo Courtesy of the Tulsa County Jail)

Five Oklahoma Criminal Justice Issues to Watch in the New Year

There was no shortage of criminal justice news to cover in Oklahoma in 2021. 

State officials resumed executions after a six-year moratorium and mounting issues at the Oklahoma County Jail drew national attention. Inside state prisons, corrections officials distributed vaccines to the incarcerated and ended prolonged restrictions on prisoner movement and family visitation.

Oklahoma Watch‘s Keaton Ross reports that in 2022, court rulings and state legislative votes will continue to have a lasting impact on the future of criminal justice in Oklahoma. [Read More …]

What I’m Reading This Week

  • The three elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities and numerous other industries, have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from those they are tasked with regulating during their most recent election cycle, a CNHI Oklahoma investigation has found. [CNHI]
  • The Biden administration urged a federal judge on Wednesday to reject Oklahoma’s challenge to the COVID-19 vaccination requirement for National Guard members, saying the state didn’t even challenge the correct mandate. [The Oklahoman]
  • While Gov. Stitt has said he intends to continue fighting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the McGirt case, his brother has been fighting a different battle. Marvin Keith Stitt, 51, who goes by Keith, asked the Tulsa Municipal Court on Wednesday to dismiss a speeding ticket he received in February because he is a member of the Cherokee Nation. [The Frontier]
  • Oklahoma Attorney General John O’ Connor has joined a 24-state lawsuit to block President Biden’s mandate for COVID-19 precautions within Head Start programs. [KGOU]
  • A Nevada-based Hindu organization is planning to place a display of Hindu deities at the state Capitol after a Christian group recently was allowed to put a Nativity scene in the government building. [The Oklahoman]

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