Suburbs could swing governor's race, school-focused voters in play
EDMOND — Keri Shipley's marked up sample ballot ahead of next week's election largely looks like that of a registered Republican, which she has been for 28 years. She plans to support Republican candidates for the state House, state schools superintendent, lieutenant governor and several other seats.
But at the top of her ballot will be a vote in favor of Drew Edmondson, the Democratic nominee for governor.
"We have to support education, and I think that means supporting Edmondson," said Shipley, who has a daughter at Deer Creek High School in Edmond.
"I don't believe in a lot of taxes, I don't want to be taxed to death ... but I don't know how else we can get where we need with our school funding without some new money and a detailed plan.”
Republicans outnumber Democrats by a wide margin in most of the precincts throughout the Oklahoma City suburbs, which would appear to be solid turf for Republican Kevin Stitt, a Tulsa businessman who has promised to bring a CEO's vision to the governor's office and vowed not to raise taxes.
But this year's intense spotlight on education funding and Edmondson's promise to raise taxes to pump more money into schools has created a conflict for some suburban voters, especially women who said they moved to the suburbs in search of high-quality schools.
"I prayed about it and talked to my pastor. I'm voting for Edmondson," said Lucia Frohling, a registered Republican with three children in Deer Creek elementary schools.
"Stitt says that he supports education but it comes with a giant asterisk because he wouldn't have supported the (teacher pay tax increase) bill this year," she said.
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Following a decade of per-student funding declines and a wave of educators leaving the state in search of better pay, Oklahoma teachers won a salary increase this year by forcing the Republican-majority Legislature to approve a package of tax hikes.
A two-week teacher walkout in April put more attention on the plight of educators and a dozen Republican lawmakers who objected to the taxes to fund the teacher pay raise lost reelection efforts during summer primaries.
Frohling, who was helping set up her school's annual fall festival Friday, said Deer Creek schools are better off than most across the state. But she said state budget cuts have forced her principal to choose between hiring a teacher or keeping academic programs, parents donate most of the classroom supplies and her daughter held a lemonade stand to raise money for a school playground.
"Because of the importance of education, I think a lot of people here are supporting Edmondson, but you can't always be vocal about it," Frohling said.
Reservations about oil and gas tax
Like Edmondson, Stitt has vowed to increase education funding and teacher pay, and he's talked often about making Oklahoma a "top 10 state for education."
While Edmondson has said he would increase taxes to grow the education budget, Stitt doesn't believe that's necessary.
"When he says you need to raise taxes to put more money in the classroom that is just untrue," said Stitt, adding the state's tax revenue is already growing enough to fund a budget increase.
But while an anti-tax sentiment can resonate in a conservative suburban community, and Edmondson's plan to raise taxes on oil and gas production isn't a favorite idea for many households that have ties to the energy sector, many voters believe raising taxes is the only way to guarantee more money for schools.
However, even some of Edmondson's Republican supporters are not completely on board with all of his tax increase plan.
"It would be a knee-jerk reaction," Travis Hays said about Edmondson's plan to raise the gross production tax to 7 percent.
Hays lost in the Republican primary for House District 82, which includes much of west Edmond. But Hays plans to vote for Edmondson in November.
"I'm a Republican, but it's so tribal now," Hays said. "It has to be about getting this right and not just trying to keep winning for a particular party."
Like Hays, Frohling said she isn't in favor of more taxes on oil and gas production, but she believes Edmondson would work with the Legislature to find an appropriate plan.
"It doesn't make sound financial sense to put all your eggs in the oil and gas basket," said Frohling, who works in the energy sector. "But I think Edmondson would be open to a conversation about this and making sure he makes the best decision for our state."
Battle for suburbia
Various polls have showed a competitive race between Edmondson and Stitt ahead of the Nov. 6 election, which includes Libertarian Chris Powell. On Friday, the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections, moved the Oklahoma gubernatorial race from "likely Republican" to a "toss up."
Like the rest of the nation, Oklahoma's political landscape has become geographically polarized, with Republicans dominating most of the rural parts of the state and Democrats building a base of support in urban communities.
But the suburbs are where Democrats, both locally and nationally, hope to make some gains.
"A lot of folks were wondering whether or not the impact of the teacher walkout would last beyond just what happened in April," said Bailey Perkins, a legislative liaison for the Oklahoma Policy Institute. "Teachers, including many who are running for office, are really pushing the conversation on education this election cycle."
At least 74 licensed teachers, along with another 20 school support workers or administrators, filed for state House and Senate seats this year, according to a count by The Oklahoman.
The majority are running as Democrats and the party has worked to link itself to the cause of educators.
But while a focus on education appears to be helping Edmondson, it hasn't transferred to other statewide races where Republicans are widely expected to win.
Some of the support Edmondson is getting in the suburbs comes from voters looking for a change after eight years of budget woes and school funding reductions.
But Stitt is running as a complete outsider who has no connection to government, or its past problems.
"Kevin Stitt is a businessman and an outsider and that's appealing to a conservative businesswoman like me," said Billie Rodely, a Republican living in suburban Oklahoma City.
Rodely said she has almost made up her mind on whom to vote for, but admitted it was a tough choice, as it has been for some of her friends.
"The staunch Republicans are going to vote for Stitt and the staunch Democrats are going to vote for Edmondson,” Rodely said. “But there is a middle.”
Editor's note: an early version of this article incorrectly said Rep. Kevin Calvey of House District 82 lost an election this year. However, Calvey is term limited this year and unable to seek reelection.
Supporters of Kevin Stitt say his lack of government experience is not a problem.