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Midterms in Review: What’s up with Oklahoma?

Image via Sarah Phipps/AP

In the aftermath of the 2022 midterm elections, there is much to consider. From the lack of a forecasted “Red Wave,” to the Democratic underperformance in New York and Florida, from the Republican underperformance in Pennsylvania, to another Georgia runoff, and so much more, the 2022 midterms are full of compelling stories and interesting case studies. I would like to focus on one of the less high-profile races in the cycle: the Oklahoma gubernatorial election. 

Oklahoma is a deep red state. In the 2020 presidential election, it was one of two states where every county was won by Donald Trump (like the previous GOP nominees in the three elections prior). He carried the state by 33 percentage points. Oklahoma has not sent a Democratic senator to DC since the 1990s, and Republicans maintain supermajorities in both chambers of the Oklahoma State Legislature. By all accounts, the incumbent Governor Kevin Stitt should have had no issues winning re-election. Yet, despite Oklahoma’s partisan lean, his challenger Joy Hofmeister ran a rather competitive race when measured against past election results. 

This tight race was novel in many facets; the Five Tribes endorsed Stitt’s Democratic challenger, millions of dollars were poured into what was supposed to be an easy win for the GOP, and many polls showed Hofmeister with a slim lead. Hofmeister, the former State Superintendent of Schools and lifelong Republican (yes, Republican—who switched parties last year and is a self-professed “fiscal conservative and aggressive moderate”) ran on a platform of good governance and education policy, in which Oklahoma ranks among the lowest in the nation. While the end result was a victory for incumbent Stitt, a greater exploration becomes necessary when we consider the race in context.

Much of the rhetoric of the election surrounded the failings of the current administration to reach Stitt’s goal to become a “top 10 state” in many key metrics, especially after he admitted that the goal was merely aspirational. Oklahoma consistently ranks near the bottom of many significant metrics, from health to education. When Governor Stitt first ran in 2018, he campaigned on his business experience and wanted to reorganize the state government as a business in order to improve the state’s performance across the board. This year, Stitt again ran on his business experience and criticized the “dark money” spent against him in the race. While Hofmeister emphasized her unique moderate views on issues from energy to abortion, she was relentlessly attacked for her supposed association with Joe Biden, which hurt her in the strongest-red areas of the state. 

This year, both of Oklahoma’s Senate seats were up for election due to the resignation of long-serving Senator Jim Inhofe. Using these elections as a benchmark, analysis shows that Hofmeister outperformed the Democratic candidates for both Senate seats by more than 5 percentage points. This distinction proves that there was something unique about the gubernatorial race; in a state where more than 40 percent of voters mark the straight-party option at the top of their ticket, there are still large numbers of voters willing to entertain the notion of splitting their ticket. This gap, however, can be explained by pointing to the aforementioned quirks of this race: an unpopular incumbent, an “aggressively moderate” challenger who was very well-known, and the endorsement of the Five Tribes, none of which factored into the considerations in the two statewide races for Senate. 

The more important metric, I believe, when considering the relative success of Hofmeister campaign, lies in the comparison of Joe Biden’s result in the 2020 presidential election. Hofmeister outperformed Joe Biden in all 77 counties, improving upon his lead by 38 percentage points in several counties, and beating his statewide vote share by almost 10 points overall. While the rural counties broke for Stitt by wide margins, Hofmeister still beat Joe Biden’s results in those counties, often by double digits. For context, Kendra Horn, the Democratic challenger for the open Senate seat and former Oklahoma Representative, outperformed Biden by three points, less than a third of Hofmeister’s margin. Admittedly, it must be reiterated that Hofmeister would be one of the most conservative Democrats elected to any statewide office. However, this is still significant for the Democratic party as they continue to posture themselves as a big-tent party in the face of the ever-polarizing national environment.  The race for governor was meaningfully different, in large part due to the rejection of partisanship as displayed in the swing from 2020 to 2022, and emphasized by the gap between Hofmeister and the other Democratic candidates for statewide office. Oklahoma voters signaled their approval of GOP candidates up and down the ballot (save for a high profile race for Oklahoma County District Attorney) but made an exception for Hofmeister. Whether the possibility of a majority of Republican voters making a large enough exception for a politician of the opposite party (no matter how “aggressively moderate” they may be) will ever be possible in such a polarized environment remains to be seen. Oklahoma shifted to the left this year, but the effects of that shift are still incoming.