Millions in outside spending has appeared to impact Oklahoma's race for governor

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The commercials show Gov. Kevin Stitt in grainy black and white, his face frozen in an unflattering expression as a narrator accuses the first-term governor of facilitating the Epic schools scandal, approving a “sweetheart deal” for a barbecue restaurant to open in state parks, and allowing utility companies to hike rates to cover inflated natural gas prices during a 2021 winter storm.

The attack ads, which don’t mention Stitt’s opponent, Democrat Joy Hofmeister, have appeared on Oklahoma television sets for months but have ramped up in recent weeks.

Despite the 21st Century’s shift to digital streaming services and phone-based content, traditional television ads remain a significant campaign tool, and Stitt has been a target for millions of dollars in commercial buys, many by groups that keep their donors secret.

“I think it's undeniable the effect it has had on Stitt,” said Kyle Loveless, chief operating officer of SoonerPoll, speaking about the impact “dark money” groups and other organizations have had on the race, which appears close in multiple polls.

More:6 takeaways from the Oklahoma governor's debate between Kevin Stitt, Joy Hofmeister

Stitt’s campaign says he has been the target of more “dark money” spending than any other gubernatorial candidate in the nation, and while that’s difficult to confirm, the numbers are jolting.

At least $14 million in “dark money” ads have been bought against Stitt over the last 10 months, according to The Oklahoman’s analysis of public files with the Federal Communications Commission. At least $1 million in ad buys have been made during the first three weeks of October.

The negative ads have chipped away at Stitt’s favorable ratings, said Loveless, whose firm found just 45% of likely voters had a favorable opinion of the governor.

“It’s not uncommon for favorable (ratings) to take a dip ... but if you look back historically to (former governor) Mary Fallin during her reelection she was in the low 50s (in favorable rating),” Loveless said. “She didn't take a dive in popularity until later in her second term.

“The ads are making a difference.”

Dark money groups have become more active in recent months in Oklahoma

Money flows into politics in a variety of ways, including direct donations to candidates, which they use on their own commercials, yard signs, mailers, staff and other campaign operations. These contributions and expenses must be made public.

Political action committees also have to report their donors, but some groups are able to be set up as specific types of nonprofits that are shielded from revealing their donors, a practice that is often referred to as "dark money."

Candidates are not allowed to directly coordinate with these "dark money" groups, but the groups' messaging can appear similar to the candidate they support.

One commercial airing this week flashes scenes of rural school life — Friday night football and student agriculture programs — while a teacher says Stitt would destroy small-town education through his plan to allow families to use taxpayer funds for private school tuition. It's a message similar to the one Hofmeister has been delivering on the campaign trail, even though the commercial does not mention her by name.

More:Oklahoma tribal leaders endorse Hofmeister, respond to dark money allegations

"I don't have a thing to do with anything but my campaign," Hofmeister said this week during a televised debate with Stitt when she was asked about the "dark money" spending against the governor.

The commercial attacking Stitt over private school vouchers was from a group called Oklahoma Children Our Future, which is spending at least $100,000 on television ads this week alone, according to federal television reports.

A group registered as Imagine This Oklahoma purchased at least $500,000 in airtime across the state in October, running ads against Stitt.

The Oklahoma Project, a political action committee, is also running ads against Stitt and has spent more than $300,000 this month.

In a statement to The Oklahoman, the organization claimed it had received donations from more than 2,400 individuals, although it would not provide any further information.

“Under Kevin Stitt, we’ve suffered scandal after scandal, and we’re committed to getting the facts out to protect our tax dollars, stop his attacks on public schools, and address Oklahoma’s bottom-of-the-barrel rankings when it comes to education, health care, and our economy,” Oklahoma Project said.

Dark money spending trumps Oklahoma candidate spending

Headed into the general election season, Hofmeister had a significant funding disadvantage, with just half a million dollars in the bank compared to Stitt’s $930,000 war chest, according to state finance records from August, the most recent records available.

Beyond the cash on hand, the finance reports showed Stitt as the more successful fundraiser, outraising Hofmeister by millions.

But the disadvantage Hofmeister has in direct campaign cash has been more than made up for by spending from outside groups.

"If you add up the dollars that are being spent for her (by outside groups) compared to those dollars actually being spent by her (own campaign), it dwarfs her own spending," said AJ Ferate, chairman of the state's Republican party.

Stitt is receiving some support in fighting back against pro-Hofmeister groups as the Republican Governors Association recently announced they would spend “seven figures” on ad buys over the next few weeks. The organization’s political action committee began airing commercials last week that attempt to tie Hofmeister to President Joe Biden.

Stitt tried to make the outside spending in support of Hofmeister an issue at last week's debate, claiming she would be beholden to the groups supporting her candidacy.

"I'll give you $20 million reasons why she will be beholden to special interests and not you the people," said Stitt, a reference to the amount of dark money his campaign believes has been spent against him going back to last year.

Stitt went on to claim Hofmeister was working with the dark money groups, or at least knew who their funders were.

"We both know she knows who it is," Stitt claimed during the debate.

"Actually, you are wrong," Hofmeister responded. "If there is a way to get money out of politics, sign me up because it is what has corrupted this state."

Hofmeister went on to reference a September poll from the firm Amber Integrated that found 86% of likely voters believe there is "corruption" in state government, a label many attack ads have tried to place on the governor.

"They see your self-dealing, they see your cronyism and I've had a front-row seat to the corruption that I've witnessed under your watch," Hofmeister told Stitt.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Dark money has played a big role in Oklahoma's race for governor