Stitt’s ‘rural wall’ could be a significant edge this election

Ben Felder
Gov. Kevin Stitt carries the American flag during the 101 Wild West Rodeo's Military Appreciation Night on June 11 in Ponca City. (CALLEY LAMAR/PONCA CITY NEWS)
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joy Hofmeister talks to the media at her watch party in Oklahoma City on June 28. (NATHAN J. FISH/THE OKLAHOMAN)

Wearing cowboy boots, a white pearl-snap shirt, and a matching cowboy hat, Gov. Kevin Stitt rode out into the middle of a Lawton rodeo arena with an American flag in his hand, presenting the colors from atop a chocolate-colored horse named Eagle.

The setting was a slice of rural Oklahoma that Stitt said made him feel at home. 

"These are my people," said Stitt, who has appeared horseback several times in recent months, whether it be riding at other rodeos, arriving at the Capitol for a bill signing ceremony, or even conducting a television interview atop a horse at his family's ranch.

"These are the people that support me, and it's just fun for me to get out and hang out with them." 

Sen. Blake Stephens, Gov. Kevin Stitt, Rep. Randy Randleman and his granddaughter, Julieanne Randleman, 11, rode horseback on Aug. 10, 2022. The ceremonial signing of House Bill 3261, naming the American Quarter Horse as the official state horse, was held at the Capitol South Plaza.

The fact that Stitt has pulled up his stirrups in an election year is no surprise, especially since the ability to retain his electoral strength in rural Oklahoma would make him a difficult incumbent to beat. 

Four years ago, Drew Edmondson, the Democratic candidate for governor, racked up votes in the state’s two urban centers, won Oklahoma and Cleveland counties, and made inroads in Oklahoma City’s northern suburbs, a traditional Republican stronghold. 

But it wasn’t enough. 

Stitt won by 12 percentage points statewide, largely because of a base of support in rural counties where he doubled or sometimes tripled Edmondson’s vote total, especially in southeastern and western Oklahoma.

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks to a crowd after winning the Republican primary for governor during an election watch party June 28, 2022, inside the First National Center in Oklahoma City.

If Stitt retains the rural advantage he had four years ago, Joy Hofmeister, his Democratic opponent this year, would need to make significant gains with urban voters to have a chance. 

There are different ways to define an area as urban or rural, but the federal Office of Management and Budget categorizes 17 of Oklahoma’s counties as “urban.” While it’s not a perfect definition, especially since many of those counties still have very rural identities, it’s the definition The Oklahoman is using in analyzing where Hofmeister would need to boost votes. 

If Stitt’s support in the rural counties is similar to what it was in 2018, Hofmeister would need to improve her performance in urban counties (compared to Edmondson) by 9.5 percentage points. 

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Another way to look at it is Hofmeister would need to get around 57% of the vote in urban counties, which Edmondson received 47% of. 

A nearly 10-point gain is a challenging feat and numerous other factors could contribute to Hofmeister performing better or worse than Edmondson. 

But the math shows the importance of Stitt keeping ahold of his rural base.

'Stitt is not viewed as a big city guy'

Gov. Kevin Stitt loads up a grill with beef on May 12, 2021, under a billboard that PETA has along SE 15 Street in Oklahoma City.

At last month’s rodeo in Lawton, Stitt found plenty of support, including from Jermaine Ford, who took a selfie with the governor.

Having previously met Stitt once before at a country music concert, Ford characterized the governor as down to earth. 

"I think he’s awesome. That whole PETA stuff that he did, that was petty but that was spot on," Ford said, referencing a cookout Stitt had last year under an Oklahoma City billboard from the animal rights group that called him a "meathead." 

"We’re at a time right now where everybody’s offended by everything," Ford added. "They feel like they have the right to dictate your life and well-being, and it made it a point. It was direct, but it had a comical aspect to it. You have to appreciate it." 

Stitt's main advantage in rural Oklahoma might be his party affiliation as Republicans significantly outnumber Democrats in many rural counties.

But the governor regularly talks about a brand of conservatism that is popular in many rural communities, said Richard Johnson, a political science professor at Oklahoma City University.

"Even though he is from Tulsa, Stitt is not viewed as a big city guy; he is viewed as a successful businessman, not a traditional politician, and I think that plays well in rural areas," Johnson said.

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks at the state Capitol as Joy Hofmeister looks on.

Johnson believes Stitt also earned political points with his resistance to closing schools and businesses, and not imposing a mask mandate during the pandemic.

"Hofmeister was probably more in favor of government intervention during (COVID) and I think that was a big issue in rural communities," Johnson said.

Stitt has also been a pro-firearm governor, signing bills that ended any training or licensing requirements. Many of his policies have also resisted the type of diverse culture often promoted in urban communities, whether it be signing a bill that bans transgender women from competing in sports or a bill that has limited how schools can teach about diversity and history.

More:On new law about teaching race, Gov. Kevin Stitt says some are 'blowing this out of proportion'

Both candidates have been in campaign mode for months, including in their own primary races.

But the Labor Day weekend typically signifies the official start of the general election season, when many voters begin paying attention and start seeing a barrage of campaign commercials.

Hofmeister's campaign believes it has some momentum heading into the final months, pointing to polls that show dropping favorability ratings for Stitt.

The political news site FiveThirtyEight, which reviews multiple polls, shows a tightening race between Hofmeister and Stitt. But it still gives the governor a 99 out of 100 chance of winning reelection.

Two other candidates, Libertarian Natalie Bruno and independent Ervin Yen, will also be on the Nov. 8 ballot.

'I think she can do it'

The Oklahoma City skyline on June 25, 2022.

Dave and LeBron Bessen clinked their pint glasses in a celebration of what they thought was possible — a Hofmeister win in November.

“I think she can do it, I really do,” said Dave Bessen, who was sipping beers with his wife.

Support for Hofmeister wasn’t hard to find inside this craft brewery near downtown Oklahoma City. “JOY” signs are a common sight in the area, including a few miles north in the historic neighborhood where the Bessens live — “We got our sign,” LeBron Bessen said proudly. 

Winning Oklahoma County — the state’s most populous — used to be an indication of statewide support, as recent governors, including Republican Mary Fallin and Democrat Brad Henry, won the county in each of their two election wins.

Winning a county doesn't carry with it any electoral college-type points like states do in a national presidential election. But "how goes Oklahoma County, so goes Oklahoma" used to be a pretty safe bet.  

That changed in 2018 when Edmondson won Oklahoma County by 12 percentage points but lost statewide. 

Winning Oklahoma County is almost a must for Hofmeister, but is no longer the predictor of statewide support that it once was. Turning out votes in the more progressive precincts in Oklahoma County could be a challenge for Hofmeister, who was a Republican until last year. 

But LeBron Bessen said Hofmeister's party switch didn’t dampen her enthusiasm. 

Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, Democratic candidate for governor, talks to the media on June 28, 2022, at her primary election watch party in Oklahoma City.

“That doesn't bother me,” she said about Hofmeister changing political parties. “I think switching was the smart thing to do and Democrats realize that.”

If Stitt were to retain his rural advantage, Hofmeister would need to rack up votes in the urban centers of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, driving up turnout in the most Democratic precincts.

But she would also need to significantly improve on Edmondson's success in some suburban precincts.

"I know we were a Stitt street in 2018," Erin Lancaster, a mother of two in Edmond, said about her neighbors on her subdivision cul-de-sac. "But I think some (of my neighbors) are interested in Joy, especially because of the education problems."

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Lancaster said one of her child's schools had a foriegn language program cut because of budget issues and she knows of a neighbor who has a son taught by an emergency certified teacher.

Hofmeister is the current state superintendent, but "Stitt seems too focused on critical race theory and not funding," Lancaster said.

Economic challenges top of mind for many rural voters

Norman resident Linda Evans holds her homemade sign showing her discontent. Members of Pike Off OTA, a group opposed to portions of the ACCESS turnpike expansion, held a protest on Aug. 30, 2022, outside a fundraiser for Gov. Kevin Stitt at the Association of Oklahoma General Contractors.

Winning rural votes is tougher these days for Democratic candidates, but political observers see some policy issues that might give Hofmeister a chance.

Stitt is a supporter of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers, which Hofmeister calls a "rural school killer."

Stitt also has frustrated tribal nations that hold sway in some rural parts of the state and have been encouraging more of their citizens to vote this year. A turnpike expansion plan supported by Stitt also is drawing opposition from some residents who say their homes and rural way of life will be destroyed.

But Johnson, the political science professor, believes economic prosperity is always an important issue for rural voters.

"Rural areas always seem to be dealing with being on the edge economically and voters there are always aware of that," Johnson said.  

Chickasaw Secretary of State Bill Lance, left, and Superintendent Joy Hofmeister are pictured Aug. 10, 2022, at the annual Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association convention in Tulsa.

Hofmeister said she believes she has an economic message that can appeal to rural voters.

“As I am traveling and invited into rural homes and sitting at diner tables, sitting at various conference rooms at banks and businesses, I am hearing that rural businessmen, farmers and ranchers feel that Gov. Stitt has forgotten them,” Hofmeister said.

While Stitt had strong rural support four years ago, Hofmeister is quick to point out that so did she.

"It's worth reminding everyone that in 2018 I was on the ballot (for state superintendent) and in that general election I won 43,000 more votes than Stitt who was at the top of the ticket," Hofmeister said. "So I had strong support in rural Oklahoma."