The Journal Record
August 30, 2018
OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Stitt’s successful Republican primary campaign for governor can’t be explained quickly, observers said. Too much came into play.
A political scientist and a few campaign consultants said geography, anti-establishmentarian sentiment and several other factors created the environment in which he and Mick Cornett had to run their races.
The second half of the campaign unfolded much differently than the first. Before the June 26 election, a slew of candidates were vying for attention. There was a consensus that candidates were competing not for the nomination but for a top-two spot to get to the runoff. The top three, which included the runoff candidates and Todd Lamb, were polling within a point of each other throughout the race and that tightness continued on primary day. Cornett came in first place as Stitt and Lamb’s fight continued into the night.
In the second half, debates got more attention. The ad campaigns were focused. And the territory for which candidates fought was well-defined. Stitt homed in on rural areas, reiterating during debates and events that he wanted to be governor for all Oklahomans. Cornett continued touting his experience as a mayor and civil servant focused on quality of life and other issues that tend to attract urban supporters.
That last distinction likely played a major role, said Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“(Stitt) won among traditional rural voters, most likely, and evangelical voters,” he said.
Oklahoma’s rural counties tend to be home to more of those traditional and evangelical voters. For the most part, those line the state’s perimeter. And for the most part, they went for Lamb in the June election. Stitt won every border county but Alfalfa and Kay in the runoff. He won most counties, 68 of the 77. He turned up at events in smaller, rural communities. Before the election, Sequoyah County Republican Party Chairwoman Mary Cosner predicted Stitt would win her county largely because he had visited and Cornett hadn’t.
Cornett won Oklahoma City’s metro area, which includes Oklahoma and Cleveland counties. He nabbed some smaller counties that hold universities, such as Custer, which has Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, and Payne County, which contains Stillwater and Oklahoma State University.
Younger voters tend to be more moderate, said Chad Alexander, a Republican campaign consultant. Those voters supported Cornett. It’s likely they were significantly more active in June.
“Without having (State Question 788) on the ballot, you lost a lot of younger voters,” Alexander said. “The vote (Tuesday) night was really the base of the Republican Party. It was an older electorate and a more socially conservative electorate.”
Onlookers can’t ignore the ad that the Cornett campaign aired, which hinged on subbing Stitt’s surname for an expletive with which it rhymes. Alexander said that it hurt Cornett’s chances after angering several voters and striking them as inappropriate.
The Donald Trump-supporting portion of the state had also been active, he said, and that is a wide swath considering how high Trump’s support polls here. Stitt aired an ad against Cornett in which the then-Oklahoma City mayor said that he hadn’t endorsed then-candidate Trump. Alexander said portraying a sense of rift with Trump was likely an effective strategy.
“He’s the most popular Republican in Oklahoma,” he said.
The tie became more official this week. Trump offered Stitt his support via Twitter on Thursday.
“Kevin is a very successful businessman who will be a fantastic Governor,” the president’s tweet reads in part. “He is strong on Crime & Borders, the 2nd Amendment, & loves our Military & Vets. He has my complete and total Endorsement!”
Trump campaigned as an outsider, and that outsider support is alive and well in Oklahoma, said Matt Latham, a lobbyist and owner of Latham Consulting Group.
“Cornett was between a rock and a hard spot wanting to tout his success as Oklahoma City mayor while not looking like a past politician,” he said. “Stitt wisely utilized the luxury of having no past as a politician to court voters, and that was attractive to them.”
He pointed to other outsiders in Tuesday’s race to affirm the observation. He attributed that to newcomer Matt Pinnell’s success over lieutenant governor primary opponent Dana Murphy, an experienced corporation commissioner. He also noted that several incumbent House Republicans lost their re-election bids in both June’s vote and Tuesday’s.