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Rural voters could play key role in GOP primary runoff

The Journal Record

August 23, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY – As voters head to the polls Tuesday, rural Republicans will have a choice to make.

In the first round of primary votes on June 26, the counties lining Oklahoma’s perimeter, most of which are considered rural, overwhelmingly supported Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Fewer than 10 of them voted for a candidate other than Lamb.

However, the urban centers boosted Mick Cornett and Kevin Stitt into the first- and second-place spots, dropping Lamb from the runoff. That leaves the 110,479 residents who voted for him up in the air and in play.

Observers and Republican officials in those counties said several issues will take center stage as rural voters decide which candidate to choose. Frustration with the past eight years will likely continue an anti-establishmentarian streak. Some of those smaller communities feel as though they’ve been overlooked, and they’re likely to give credit to any candidate who takes the time to visit. Although each candidate remaining is based in an urban area, the candidates will need to acknowledge uniquely rural issues to win that vote.

Most onlookers acknowledged that although it wasn’t the case this year, primaries don’t tend to draw wide turnouts. It’s unlikely that the runoff will see the same levels of participation the June elections did.

Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, said that might have the most dramatic effect on Lamb’s former base.

“When you go to a runoff, most voters whose candidate didn’t make it won’t show up again,” he said.

However, he said, Lamb did have a solid following among a group that is almost sure to head to the polls: the civic duty voters, those who believe democracy depends on participation and won’t ever skip a vote.

“Lamb had a decent number (of those),” Gaddie said. “The traditional, older Republican crowd.”

Leon Farris is the chairman of Republican Party in Stephens County, which lies just east of Lawton in southwestern Oklahoma. He said he has seen wide support for both candidates in his community, but that turnout is going to affect who wins.

“I don’t even have a guess on how that’s going to fall,” he said. “It’s going to come down to the wire, I believe. … Whichever candidate is the most successful in getting their folks off the couch and down to the polls may be the deciding factor.”

As they were on the state level, Lamb, Stitt and Cornett were the front-runners there. Lamb took 34 percent of the vote for Stephens County.

Farris said that Stephens County residents’ disillusionment with current officials will likely play a larger role in the runoff than it did in the primary because of the work Lamb had done in the area.

“I will say I think a lot of the Republicans are disappointed in how our governor and our Legislature have performed in the last eight years,” Farris said. “I don’t think we’re willing to just throw all the babies out with the bathwater and go back to the way it was before Republicans took the House, the Senate and then the governor’s chair. But we could have done better and we didn’t, so I think that’s going to result in people looking really hard at outsiders.”

Although some might lump Lamb in with that crowd because he has spent the past eight years working at 23rd and Lincoln, that isn’t the case in Stephens County, Farris said. Duncan’s economy has seen a major boost because of the economic development efforts Lamb helped foster.

“We didn’t look at him so much as establishment,” Farris said. “We saw he worked hard for us, and we believed he’d do the same thing as governor.”

Mary Cosner is the chairperson of the Republican Party in Sequoyah County, which lies southeast of Tulsa on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. She said members of her organization tend to feel forgotten, so simply making an appearance can make a difference.

“We have not been approached by Cornett,” she said. “Stitt has actually come into our county.”

Unlike the rest of the state and many other counties, neither Stitt nor Cornett made the top three during the primary. Lamb got about 27 percent of the vote. Dan Fisher nabbed 15 percent, and Gary Richardson took 12 percent.

Cosner said voters in the area focus on a few main issues, including budget management and the opioid crisis.

She said the Oklahoma State Department of Health scandal, in which officials were found to be hiding state funds from lawmakers in a secret account, further reinforced the belief that Oklahoma doesn’t need higher taxes but better financial auditing.

“We feel like the money is there,” she said. “We feel like the money is there at the state, and we want to know where it’s going.”

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