Yukon state Sen. Jake Merrick faces tough reelection bid against political newcomer

·6 min read

Sen. Jake Merrick may be the most vulnerable member of the state Senate this election cycle.

The Yukon Republican, who was elected in a special election last year, is now vying for a four-year term in the Oklahoma Legislature.

But he's got competition.

Jake Merrick
Jake Merrick

Merrick, 40, will face Kristen Thompson, 37, in Tuesday's primary election in Senate District 22, which includes parts of northern Oklahoma and Canadian counties.

Thompson, of Edmond, has outraised the incumbent lawmaker and clinched an endorsement from Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Merrick, a licensed minister and former personal trainer who owns a construction company, is one of the most conservative members of the state Senate.

Kristen Thompson
Kristen Thompson

A political newcomer, Thompson and her husband own a general contracting company and a restaurant group that has several eateries in the Oklahoma City area.

She said she felt called to public service by God and originally considered running for her local school board seat.

Merrick, who declined an interview, describes himself as a constitutional Republican with a biblical worldview. His top priorities include "election integrity," opposing the "LGBTQ+++ agenda," preventing vaccine mandates, tax reform, focusing public schools on education and ending abortion in Oklahoma, according to his website.

Senate District 22
Senate District 22

More: End of Roe makes abortion a crime in Oklahoma as state's abortion 'trigger' law takes effect

Candidates divided on abortion

An abortion "abolitionist," Merrick voted against several anti-abortion bills this year, saying they didn't go far enough to eliminate abortion without any exceptions. One of the bills he opposed implemented an abortion ban that begins at fertilization, which enacted the strictest anti-abortion law in the nation at the time.

Merrick has argued states should never have adhered to Roe v. Wade, a now-overturned ruling he says violates state sovereignty. He filed legislation this year to classify all abortions as homicide. The bill did not get a hearing

Legislative Republicans this year largely ignored the decades-old ruling that gave women the right to seek an abortion as the U.S. Supreme Court appeared likely to overturn the decision. But in years past, lawmakers would often toe the line to see how much they could restrict abortion within the parameters of Roe v. Wade.

Noting she is "100% pro-life," Thompson said she would have voted for the anti-abortion bills Merrick opposed.

School choice becomes a hot topic

Thompson said one of her top goals in office is to create a business-friendly environment that supports small, local businesses. She also stressed the importance of building up vocational programs so Oklahoma has more skilled workers.

Drawing on some difficult childhood experiences, Thompson said she wants to ensure the state is offering a wide array of mental health resources for children.

A proponent of school choice, Thompson said she wants to focus on improving K-12 education so Oklahoma has the best education system in the nation.

"I just want to make sure that we are offering resources for these kids to succeed, whatever that looks like," Thompson said.

Merrick is taking heat from some well-funded school choice groups after he voted against a controversial school voucher expansion on the Senate floor. After voting for the Oklahoma Empowerment Act in committee, Merrick later reversed course.

On the Senate floor, he said he struggled with how to vote on Senate Bill 1647.

On one hand, Merrick said he saw the bill as a way to increase the free market and give frustrated parents a greater say in the education of their children.

"I agree with those parents, and I agree with the intent of this bill that something has to be done, but I can't say with 100% confidence that this is the way," Merrick said.

Thompson said she would have voted for the bill because the title was off — meaning the details were still a work in progress and the Senate would get a chance to vote on the measure again.

"I would have been a yes on that because the conversation, I think, is too important to have it stopped that early in the legislative session," she said.

Outside money pouring into the race

The School Freedom Fund — an extension of the Washington-based Club for Growth has poured nearly $200,000 into the Senate race in support of Thompson and against Merrick. The conservative group is backing candidates who support school choice.

More: School choice supporters mount campaign attacks on Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma

The flood of dark money into the district this year and last year led Merrick to call for an end to dark money in Oklahoma elections.

A dark money group led by three Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs officials spent more than $100,000 in support of Merrick ahead of last year's special election. Dark money groups don't have to report their donors.

In a blog post, Merrick decried a mailer that he said blatantly smears his record by falsely stating he opposed efforts to protect children from critical race theory and "transgender indoctrination in public schools." Merrick co-authored a bill in 2021 that proponents say bans the teaching of critical race theory.

Even before GOP lawmakers were rallying this year behind the idea of passing a "bathroom bill," Merrick had filed two bills that would require public schools and municipalities limit bathroom use based on biological sex.

Merrick also filed two bills this year to block vaccine mandates. He has expressed displeasure that the Legislature took no action on the issue this year despite conservative lawmakers filing dozens of bills to block vaccine requirements.

"If you want a senator who comes to the Capitol, 'falls in line,' and does what he's told … I'm probably not your guy," Merrick said in a Facebook post.

Thompson said she plans to take a more collaborative approach,

"In (business), you have to learn to collaborate," she said. "You have to learn to work with different personalities that you don't agree with. You have to learn how to move forward for the good of the project."

Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, contributed to Thompson's campaign after she asked for his support. He said he first met Thompson, a constituent, a couple of years ago when she reached out about an education issue.

As for whether Thompson stands a chance against an incumbent, albeit one who has only served for a little more than a year, Martinez said the differences between special and regular elections can be significant.

"There are a lot of questions anytime a member is elected in a special election," Martinez said. "It's such a small turnout, and that always leaves the door open for what's the wider populace going to say in a higher turnout election."

The winner of Tuesday's primary will face Democrat Blake Aguirre in the general election.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note People for Opportunity spent more than $100,000 in support of Merrick ahead of his special election last year. The timing was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. 

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Yukon state Sen. Jake Merrick faces political newcomer in GOP primary