GOP Gov. Kevin Stitt in surprisingly close reelection contest in deep red Oklahoma

Oklahoma's Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt stunned state strategists and national politicos earlier this month when several private polls showed him trailing Democratic opponent Joy Hofmeister, only a few months after he led her by double digits in their surveys of the historically conservative state.

Margins were also unusually thin in public polling, and remain within a several point difference in favor of Stitt, according to FiveThrtyEight's aggregation.

Few states have a more favorable landscape for the GOP than Oklahoma, where a Democrat hasn't been elected governor in over a decade and no member of the party serves in the state's congressional delegation. Republicans have supermajorities in both of the state legislative chambers and have won every seat for statewide office since 2006. Former President Donald Trump won the state by more than 30 points in 2020.

PHOTO: Gov. Kevin Stitt, pictured in right image, and state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, left image, are pictured in these undated file photos. (Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman via USA Today Network)
PHOTO: Gov. Kevin Stitt, pictured in right image, and state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, left image, are pictured in these undated file photos. (Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman via USA Today Network)

So, the possibility of a Stitt loss to moderate Democrat Hofmeister, a former GOP member who changed affiliation last year in order to run against him, would be significant.

It's frightened national Republicans, triggering an 11th-hour resuscitation effort by the Republican Governors Association, which just last week launched a seven-figure ad buy to boost Stitt in the formerly safe contest, so far marked by an almost a three-to-one ratio of Democratic to GOP spending, mostly from outside groups.

"Stitt had been leading for the vast majority of this race, we've noticed just a slight downtrend monthly for the last three or four months now," said Hudson Talley, with Oklahoma-based Republican political consulting firm Ascend Action. "It wasn't until we actually saw a pretty seismic shift here at the end."

Their data, collected earlier this month, shows Hofmeister, the Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction, leading Stitt in a recent survey of 638 likely voters by seven points, for the first time marking him down in the rural Western part of the state, a Republican stronghold. The poll recorded 88% of respondents were undecided, however.

"National groups are starting to come in just as of last week or two. But that was the plan until some of the polls trended the wrong direction."

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Between PACs like "Imagine This Oklahoma" and the "Oklahoma Project" and Hofmeister's campaign committee, Talley's consulting group has tracked over $15 million in advertising spent against the incumbent governor. Oklahoma-based pollster Jackson Lisle of Amber Integrated said he's tracked anywhere between 10 and $20 million in positive ads for Hofmeister and negative ads for the governor.

Amber Integrated's Oct. 17 polling of about 500 voters found the race in dead heat, with 45.3% of voters saying they will vote for Stitt or "lean towards" voting for him and 45.9% saying the same of Hofmeister.

"And so when you spend that much money against somebody in small TV markets like Oklahoma's, it moves the needle, but it is surprising where some of that is coming from," said Talley.

"I just didn't really think they would find a messaging lane that moved Republican voters as much as it has."

PHOTO: In this Aug. 5, 2022, file photo, Republican Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt gestures onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas. (Brian Snyder/Reuters, FILE)
PHOTO: In this Aug. 5, 2022, file photo, Republican Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt gestures onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas. (Brian Snyder/Reuters, FILE)

If Stitt, a multimillionaire mortgage company owner -- a member of the Cherokee nation himself and a political newcomer when he ran four years ago -- loses his reelection bid in two weeks, he'll do so eroding a number of longstanding precedents set in the deeply red state.

Never has this amount of "dark money" been spent in the governor's race, according to Stitt's campaign and the Oklahoma-based political strategists. Seldom have leaders of the five largest Native American tribes in Oklahoma united to endorse a political candidate as they have done for Hofmeister, according to one tribal chief. And never have wealthy, highly educated, traditionally Republican women organized against a GOP candidate at the grassroots level the way a number of abortion-focused voters have started to do so in urban areas.

The state is experiencing unrivaled levels of spending against the governor from special interest groups. Most of the advertising against Stitt is driven by claims of alleged corruption.

"We have never seen an individual industry be able to bankroll a campaign at this level before," said Stitt's campaign manager Donelle Harder. "That is not normal. You do not see these in other states."

A number of corruption scandals have plagued Stitt's administration, which include a delay in distribution of millions of federal COVID-19 relief dollars -- meant originally for education -- while spending some of the relief in ways that the federal government audit said was improper.

An ongoing criminal probe is investigating the state's spending of upward of $17 million on contracts with a barbecue restaurant.

"If the vendors are doing anything wrong and overcharging the state, Oklahomans want somebody to put a fresh set of eyes on every single contract," Stitt said during a gubernatorial debate, when asked about the matter. "That's what we're doing."

The governor reportedly has also sought to change through a bill the hiring requirements for the Health Department and Land Office in order to accommodate his picks.

"An unprecedented $50 million dollars has been spent in dark money in Oklahoma to distort information and spread lies, and local media outlets have made record profits as a result. Oklahomans know the truth that Governor Stitt has upset a small few who lost their power at the capitol when he was elected as an outsider, and in turn, Gov. Stitt has turned the State's history of budget deficits into record-high surpluses, cut taxes for all, and funded public education and teacher salaries at historic highs," Harder said in response to ABC News about reports of corruption.

Stitt and his allies have placed the blame on the state's Native American tribes for his negative advertising.

"It's the big casino bosses. It's the big tribes," he told The Oklahoman.

"We don't fund dark money entities," Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told the Oklahoman. "We certainly put resources into races."

The source of much of the money is unclear, however, funded by groups that don't disclose their donors. Hofmeister, during a debate last Wednesday, said she didn't know who was behind the advertisements.

Two weeks ago, leaders of the Five Tribes -- including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee, Choctaw and Seminole Nations -- for the first time banded together to back Hofmeister, after they've engaged in conflict with the governor for almost the entirety of his first term.

"As far as an endorsement like this, this is precedent setting, I believe that the governor has really united us, because there has been such a lack of unity and understanding of what the tribes are trying to accomplish for our tribal members and for the state of Oklahoma," Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton, a Republican, told ABC News, who noted his tribe -- the third largest in the nation -- was "very much" looking to continue funding Hofmeister throughout the race.

"I think it would be a dereliction of duty, if I did not stand up for our tribal members and represent our tribe as a whole."

Chief Batton said he supported Stitt when he ran for office, excited by the possibility of a businessman political outsider with ties to the Native American community. The ensuing term has been "disappointing," he said.

The tribes have maintained a difficult relationship with Stitt following his attempts to renegotiate the state's tribal gaming compacts, and the governor's handling of McGirt v. Oklahoma, a case ultimately brought up to the U.S. Supreme Court which determined that much of eastern Oklahoma is Indian land.

PHOTO: Joy Hofmeister speaks at a press conference as the leaders of Oklahom's largest tribes endorse Hofmeister for governor in Oklahoma City, on Oct. 11, 2022. (Nathan J. Fish/The Oklahoman via USA Today Network)
PHOTO: Joy Hofmeister speaks at a press conference as the leaders of Oklahom's largest tribes endorse Hofmeister for governor in Oklahoma City, on Oct. 11, 2022. (Nathan J. Fish/The Oklahoman via USA Today Network)

"We do believe that our sovereignty has been attacked, there has been a lack of unity," he said. "Our livelihood is at stake … that's the reason why we've stepped up and we have to protect our sovereignty, we have to protect our way of life."

Holder, Stitt's campaign manager, took a different view.

"Anytime [Stitt] tries to hold someone accountable or give a fresh set of eyes to historic state contracts in an attempt to get the state out of last-placed ranking, there's always been back-channeling from special interest groups," she said.

In urban areas, the governor is facing surprising opposition from traditionally Republican women-- many married to men in the oil and gas industry, according to one organizer-- who have created groups like "We Are Rising," a band of reproductive rights advocates crusading against the self-described "most pro-life governor," one who has rolled out a number of new laws outlawing abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.

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Kim Garett, one of the lead organizers, said that "easily hundreds" of moderate to conservative women of status – some with direct ties to the governor himself -- have been involved in upwards of 20 gatherings or fundraising meant to boost pro-choice candidates like Hofmeister. One of the most high-profile members is the Republican State Labor Commissioner Leslie Osborn.

"I've never seen an Oklahoma, this many people talk about politics, this many people want to get involved in politics because the dye was already cast, and has been cast for a very long time. So nothing really moved the needle in my perspective until this," said We are Rising member Jennifer Welch, who gained notoriety on the BRAVO show "Sweet Home Oklahoma."

"I could have sworn with everything in me. [some have] never voted for a Democrat ever, and they're posting on their Instagrams, 'vote blue,' and just my jaw is on the floor, because I've lived here since I was seven."

Another leading issue driving voters this cycle, Oklahoman pollsters have said, is education -- a center stage issue in the race that has pitted Stitt, who has run on school choice policies like private school scholarships and charter expansion, against Hofmeister, who backs public schooling. The issue is playing out in favor of Hofmeister in most polling, Oklahoma strategists have said.

"Rural Republicans who might agree with a metro area Republican on every other issue, tend to diverge on issues of public education, because in some of our really rural counties, the biggest jobs creator is their local school districts," Talley said.

GOP Gov. Kevin Stitt in surprisingly close reelection contest in deep red Oklahoma originally appeared on abcnews.go.com