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This Year, A Primary Runoff Of Historic Proportions

Aug 27, 2018

If there is one thing clear about Tuesday’s primary runoff election, it’s that voters and observers are in for a record level of suspense.

Tuesday will feature the largest number of runoffs in at least two decades, and possibly the most in state history. That is largely due to the record number of candidates who filed for office and the large number of those who failed to clear the 50-percent threshold in the June primary to advance straight to the general election.

Voters will select their parties’ nominees in nearly four dozen races, solidifying who will be on the Nov. 6 general-election ballot for key legislative, congressional and statewide contests.

To help make sense of the five congressional, nine statewide and 32 legislative races that will be voted on, here are some key things to know before the results start rolling in.

Big Decisions for GOP

The top race to watch will be Mick Cornett vs. Kevin Stitt for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination.

Cornett, the former Oklahoma City mayor, and Stitt, the Tulsa businessman, have raised more than $3 million each in this election cycle and both sides have spent heavily on advertisements, including an exchange of attack ads in the campaign’s waning days.

If the June 26 primary is any indication, the race could be close, as less than five percentage points separated the two in the primary results. But a lot can change now that the 10-person GOP field has been whittled down to a one-on-one contest. Will a rural-urban divide determine the winner? Will turnout be a factor? Will the Donald Trump dynamic, the carryover from teacher activism last spring or certain key tax or economic issues make a big difference?

Republicans also will have many other significant choices to make.

Tuesday’s runoff will decide the GOP nominee for the majority of the statewide races, including lieutenant governor, state auditor and inspector, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, commissioner of labor and corporation commissioner. Republicans will also compete against each other in 25 legislative districts, U.S. House District 1 and for Tulsa County District Attorney.

Far fewer Democrats will be on the ballot.

The runoff for the corporation commissioner is the Democrat’s only statewide nomination left to be decided, and only six legislative seats feature a runoff among Democrats.

However, four of the state’s five U.S. House races will require a runoff to determine which Democrat advances to the general election.

Embattled Incumbents

Six sitting lawmakers, all Republicans, encountered the wrath of voters when they were voted out of office in the June primary.

That number could climb significantly on Tuesday when 10 GOP House incumbents face runoff opponents: Reps. Travis Dunlap, R-Bartlesville; George Faught, R-Muskogee; Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville; Sean Roberts, R-Hominy; Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow; Jeff Coody, R-Grandfield; Tess Teague, R-Choctaw. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa; John Pfeiffer, R-Orlando, and Jadine Nollan, R-Sand Spring.

Campaign fundraising amounts suggest that at least some of these candidates could be in for a tough fight.

The latest Oklahoma Ethics Commission reports, which track contributions to candidates through Aug. 13, show four GOP challengers have outraised their incumbent opponents.

The races include firefighter Stan May outraising Ritze by $45,534 this election cycle and by $58,190 during the June 12 to Aug. 13 pre-runoff reporting period in the House District 80 race. Another one is former newspaper publisher Louise Redcorn outraising Roberts by $31,747 this election cycle and nearly $15,000 during the pre-runoff reporting period.

In other races, incumbents hold a heavy financial edge over their opponents.

Nollan, who represents House District 66, holds the largest fundraising lead, raising $114,930 this election cycle, including $14,050 during the two-month pre-runoff reporting period. Her opponent, Sand Springs Councilman Brian Jackson, hasn’t reported any contributions.

 

Teachers, students and supporters march in front of the Capitol on April 2 during a walkout aimed at increasing education funding.
Credit Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Education in Spotlight

Tuesday will be another test for dozens of educators who filed for legislative seats in hopes of reshaping the Legislature and forcing more emphasis on what they say is Oklahoma’s critically underfunded public-school system.

More than 100 current or former public school teachers or administrators declared their candidacy in April after the two-week teacher walkout came to a close.

Dozens of the current or former educators were defeated in the June primary – many at the hands of well-funded incumbent lawmakers from both parties. But the so-called “teacher caucus” saw some success when at least 23 current or former educators won their primaries and at least 14 advanced to the runoff. The 14 include six Democrats and eight Republicans.

Some are guaranteed to advance because they are competing against each other.  In the GOP House District 98 race, for instance, Jenks Middle School social studies teacher Laura Steele will face Broken Arrow High School physical education teacher Dean F. Davis in the runoff. In the Democratic House District 68 race, Tulsa Public Schools kindergarten teacher Angela Statum is competing against Sand Springs Public Schools journalism teacher Michael Ross.

Other educator candidates will battle candidates who aren’t in their profession. But educators largely will not be facing incumbents, who historically tend to be difficult to beat.

The one exception is Graystone Elementary School Principal Sherrie Conley, who will take on Cleveland, a three-term representative, in the House District 20 race.

The Tax Vote

Education may also factor into races where no educator is running for office.

Funding for public schools has been a hot topic on the campaign trail statewide, as many voters haven’t forgotten how their representative voted on the controversial $425 million tax-raising bill that funded a teacher pay hike.

Republicans who voted for the bill have faced pressure from the party’s right wing, with groups such as Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! opposing lawmakers who supported the House Bill 1010xx, which increased taxes on tobacco products, motor fuel and oil and gas production.

But opponents of the taxes have also faced a backlash, especially from pro-education groups.

Of the 17 House Republicans who voted against the bill, two – Scott McEachin, R-Tulsa, and Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks – were voted out in the June primary.

Seven lawmakers who opposed the bill – Dunlap, Faught, Cleveland, Roberts, Ritze, Coody and Teague – are among the incumbents facing runoff challengers.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. More Oklahoma Watch content can be found at www.oklahomawatch.org.

Locking in the Seat

Most candidates who win Tuesday will have little time to savor their victory because they must quickly pivot to engage opposition in the general election campaign. But a few legislative candidates will secure their seats at the Capitol.

Tuesday will be the last day of the campaign for Republicans Amber Roberts and Bill Coleman in Senate District 10 (Osage, Kay counties), because the winner won’t have a Democratic, Libertarian or independent challenger.

It’s the same for Dave Spaulding and Danny Sterling in House District 27 (Cleveland, Pottawatomie counties), Brian Hobbs and Pfeiffer in House District 38 (north central Oklahoma), Redcorn and Roberts in House District 36 (Osage, Tulsa counties) and Kent Glesner and Lawson in House District 30 (Creek, Tulsa counties).

On the Democratic side, either Ajay Pittman or Nkem House will secure the House District 99 seat in Oklahoma City in Tuesday’s runoff.

Reach reporter Trevor Brown at tbrown@oklahomawatch.org.