Voters began casting early ballots Thursday, beginning the process to select a new governor, fill most statewide offices and legislative seats, and decide the controversial ballot question on medical marijuana.
Tuesday’s primary will begin to whittle down the record-setting field of 794 candidates who filed for office earlier this year. For those who survive, some will move on to August’s runoff elections, while others will set their eyes on November’s general election. Those without general election challengers can win their elections outright Tuesday.
With so much at stake, here is a primer of the top five things to watch as voters begin casting their ballots.
Who will survive the GOP scrum?
Barring a major surprise, Tuesday won’t settle who will get the GOP’s gubernatorial nod.
With 10 candidates in the crowded field, it is unlikely that any candidate will secure the simple majority of votes needed to avoid a runoff.
Polling over the last year suggests Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt will battle for the top two spots and survive until August.
All three of the leading candidates have consistently led the polls and taken in the most contributions. Between one-third and one-quarter of Republican voters remain undecided, so it’s unclear who will move on or if another candidate could pull an upset.
The Democratic side is more straightforward. With just two candidates – former Attorney General and 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson and retired state Sen. Connie Johnson – the winner will go straight to the general election to face the Republican nominee.
If polling and campaign fundraising are indicators, Edmondson is the hands-down favorite to win.
A SoonerPoll survey in March showed he had a 30-point lead over Johnson. And the latest campaign filings show his $1.4 million fundraising haul is more than 21 times what Johnson has raised.
On the Libertarian side, Rex Lawhorn, Joe Maldonado and Chris Powell will be battling for their party’s nomination. This is the first gubernatorial primary for the Libertarian Party, which achieved major party status and won the right to decide its nominees through the primary process in 2016.
Will voters throw out incumbents?
For two weeks in April, thousands of educators and public education supporters rallied at the Capitol while teachers walked off the job to protest low pay and the Legislature’s unwillingness to boost public education funding.
Later that month, a record number of candidates filed for Senate and House seats, including many held by long-serving incumbents, highlighting the dissatisfaction that had been simmering for years.
The result is that 35 incumbent lawmakers –33 Republicans and two Democrats – will face a primary challenge. Twenty-five incumbents faced a primary challenge last election cycle.
For the GOP candidates, the challengers come from both the right and the middle.
Ten of the 33 Republicans facing primary challengers were among those who voted this year against House Bill 1010xx – the controversial $425 million tax-raising bill that paid for the teacher pay raise package.
Meanwhile, some of the lawmakers who voted for the tax bill have drawn challengers who have made a no-new-taxes pledge part of their platforms.
Legislative Incumbents Facing Primary Challenges
Thirty-five legislative incumbents will face an opponent from their own party during this year's primary election. Of this group, 10 were among the no votes on House Bill 1010 - the $420 million revenue-raising bill that increased taxes on motor fuel, tobacco products and oil and gas production in order to fund the teacher pay package.
But it is unclear if this year will mirror 2016, when all but three of the incumbents survived their primary challenges, or if there will be a larger anti-incumbent wave.
The latest campaign finance reports, which track activity through June 11, indicate most incumbents likely don’t have much to worry about.
Twenty-seven of the 35 incumbents have outraised and outspent their primary challengers. In many cases the incumbent has a fundraising advantage many times over.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, for instance, has raised $305,862 and spent $137,098, while his primary challenger, Ivan Richeson, has raised just $4,250 and spent $3,093.
But those whose challenger or challengers have been more active fundraisers face a greater threat of being voted out.
In legislative and congressional campaigns, studies have shown the better-funded candidate is positioned to win primary races. A 2016 study, for example, showed that in 83 percent of congressional primaries across the nation, the candidate with the most campaign contributions won the election.
Eight GOP incumbents – Reps. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow; Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks; Scott McEachin, R-Tulsa; Steve Vaughn, R-Ponca City; Gregory Babinec, R-Cushing; Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa; Tess Teague, R-Choctaw, and Tom Gann, R-Inola – face primary challengers who have outraised or outspent them.
Will organized opposition derail the medical marijuana initiative?
A mid-May SoonerPoll survey showed 57.5 percent of respondents support State Question 788, which would legalize medical marijuana in the state, while only 29.6 percent oppose it and 19.9 percent were still undecided.
Those numbers saw little change from a January SoonerPoll survey that found 61.8 percent supported the state question with 30.8 percent opposing it.
But what is unknown is whether those numbers will hold up now that opponents have mounted a well-funded campaign to defeat the state question.
SQ788 is Not Medical – a coalition of business, medical and law enforcement groups – spent $815,125 on efforts to defeat the ballot measure from June 12-20.
Vote Yes on 788, which includes members who organized the ballot initiative, has only spent about $145,000 during the same time period.
What are some of the other marquee races?
Voters will also be selecting their parties’ nominees for Oklahoma’s five congressional seats, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, state auditor and inspector, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, commissioner of labor, insurance commissioner and a corporation commissioner.
The three GOP U.S. House incumbents – Tom Cole, Markwayne Mullin and Steve Russell – who face primary challengers are all expected to fend off their opponents. A crowd of Democrats, meanwhile, will be battling it out for the opportunity to take on these incumbents, as well as U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, who didn’t draw a primary challenger, in the general.
But the open First District seat, which covers Tulsa and the northeast corner of the state, is drawing the most interest.
Businessman Kevin Hern, who has poured $700,000 into his campaign, and Air Force veteran Andy Coleman, who is being supported by hundreds of thousands in outside spending, are expected to be the frontrunners. But with five GOP candidates in the race, there is a good chance it will go to a run-off.
One of the most unexpectedly heated contests, however, has been the race for the GOP’s attorney general nomination.
Attorney General Mike Hunter, who was appointed to the position last year, is taking on Tulsa attorney and businessman Gentner Drummond. The two campaigns have traded accusations in back-and-forth attack ads in what has proved to be a rancorous and well-funded race.
This includes both candidates pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money into the campaign.
Outside groups have also been active, with the Republican Attorneys General Association spending about $437,000 in support of Hunter through an independent expenditure political action committee the group started called Oklahomans for Constitutional Integrity. The Oklahoma Medical Society also spent about $20,000 to support Hunter through an independent expenditure ad buy.
The American Future Fund, an Iowa-based “dark-money” social welfare group that supports “free-market candidates”, filed paperwork Wednesday showing it has spent $285,000 on media buys to support Drummond.
But it’s possible this deluge of spending won’t decide the race Tuesday.
Longshot candidate Angela Bonilla, who works for the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, is also seeking the GOP nomination. Although she’s not expected to be among the top two vote getters, she could prolong the race by preventing the other candidates from earning the majority of the votes and avoiding runoff.
Can the state improve its dismal turnout numbers?
Oklahoma saw one of it’s lowest voter turnouts in 2014 – the last midterm election when the governor and other statewide offices were on the ballot.
For that year’s general election, 40.7 percent of registered voters showed up, the lowest recorded rate since 1962.
And even fewer voters participated in the primary.
According to Board of Election statistics, 824,831 voters cast ballots for the governor’s race – the statewide office with the most votes – during the 2014 general election.
Meanwhile, just 264,894 were cast for the top statewide GOP primary race (governor) and 167,863 were cast for the top statewide Democratic primary race (superintendent of public instruction).
Bryan Dean, spokesman for the state Election Board, said he expects this year’s primary to have a higher turnout. That’s because there are more contested races for statewide offices and legislative seats this year.
And, unlike in 2014, this year’s primary will feature a state question that could attract plenty of new voters.
According to the State Election Board, about 45,200 voters have registered since January. Those are in addition to the 2,016,157 that were registered as of Jan. 15.