Rural vote helped Stitt win governor's race
Concern among Kevin Stitt's campaign grew in the days before the election as multiple polls showed a tight race with Democrat Drew Edmondson. Momentum seemed to be building behind Edmondson, especially in suburban communities, and even some national political observers labeled Oklahoma's gubernatorial contest a "toss up."
But Stitt not only won the election for Oklahoma governor, he did so by 12 percentage points, a wide margin of victory that surpassed most expectations and indicated the enthusiasm behind Stitt, especially in rural communities, was greater than expected.
"Right now, that sea of red is still outweighing the islands of blue," said Bill Shapard, CEO of Shapard Research, speaking about the concentration of Democratic votes in the state's two largest cities, surrounded by Republican support across rural Oklahoma.
Edmondson's largest vote totals came from Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and he even made some headway in the Oklahoma City suburbs, winning dozens of precincts in Edmond that had long been Republican strongholds.
But the urban vote wasn't enough as rural Oklahoma showed its continued relevancy in statewide races.
In the state's four most populated counties around Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Edmondson received 50 percent of the vote, compared to Stitt's 47 percent. In the 73 other counties throughout the state, Stitt had a 57 percent to 35 percent advantage.
"Stitt really worked rural areas and wanted to make sure we knew who he was," said Tara Mullins, the Republican chairwoman of Pontotoc County, a Democratic county in 2014 that went Republican in Tuesday's election.
Stitt's win in rural Oklahoma wasn't surprising, but he benefited from an average 30 percent increase in rural counties, exceeding some expectations.
Canadian County, mostly a suburban Oklahoma City community that Stitt won by 23 percentage points, had the state's largest increase in turnout.
Mullins acknowledged the enthusiasm behind Edmondson was more visible, especially when it came to passionate posts on social media, teacher rallies and yard signs.
But Mullins said she saw evidence of support for Stitt in her church prayer circles and conversations with neighbors, "that made me think people were excited to support him."
Rachel Pickens, a realtor and rancher from Payne County, said rural Oklahomans have become increasingly frustrated with state government and voters gravitated toward a candidate like Stitt who had no previous political experience.
Pickens believes Stitt attracted more excitement from rural voters than had the Republican nominee been an experienced politician.
"Stitt saw government as a broken system and many of us already knew it was broken," said Pickens, who said political observers underestimated the enthusiasm rural voters had this year.
In one of the nation's most conservative states, Edmondson was always going to have an uphill battle.
While he ran as an experienced statesman who was politically moderate, Edmondson advocated for higher taxes on oil and gas production, along with the elimination of the capital gains tax deduction — taxes that hit energy workers and farmers, two common professions in rural Oklahoma.
Stitt promised not to raise taxes.
"Perhaps the average person didn't know who to believe but thought no tax increase is better than more taxes," said Michael Clingman, Edmondson's campaign manager.
The education issue
Edmondson's campaign hoped southeast Oklahoma, the once Democratic stronghold referred to as "Little Dixie," would offer some votes, but Republicans strengthened their support in that corner of the state.
"From our anecdotal evidence of volunteers on the ground and requests for yard signs, it seemed like the enthusiasm was on our side of the campaign," Clingman said.
In a year when teachers held a two-week walkout and school funding was a top issue, Edmondson tried to position himself as the education candidate, pledging to support the tax increases teachers had demanded at the Capitol.
"But this message of teachers wanting more for education probably wasn't as resonant as other issues," Clingman said. "At least in rural areas they seemed to feel that schools can make it by on what they are getting now or they probably would have gone for Drew."
Officials with Stitt's campaign had acknowledged a challenge on education messaging, even though Stitt said he also wanted to increase school funding.
Edmondson's support of teachers during the walkout may have been key to him picking up votes in some Oklahoma City's suburbs, where many voters identified education funding as the most important issue.
But it may have backfired in rural communities.
"I think there was a lot of people who were being silent about the teacher walkout that may not have agreed with everything that was going on, and (voting for Stitt) was their chance to voice that frustration silently," said Mullins, the Pontotoc County Republican chairwoman.
Sarah Stitt and the closing message
The gubernatorial race was the most expensive in state history and televisions were flooded with commercials from both campaigns and outside groups.
Clingman said a wave of commercials that attempted to connect Edmondson with unpopular liberals, such as Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, didn't help, along with a negative commercial from the National Rifle Association.
Stitt ran as a political outsider, but Edmondson attempted to link him with the state's unpopular governor, a message that may have helped keep the race close until the final week, said Randall Gutermuth, who did polling for the Stitt campaign.
"With the exception of Oklahoma County, we saw pretty significant improvement (for Stitt) in the last week of the election," Gutermuth said about the counties within the Oklahoma City television market, which include a large swath of suburban and rural communities in central Oklahoma.
"My sense there is that our closing message was extremely strong."
Shapard, who also polled the gubernatorial election, said he believes the Stitt campaign made late inroads with female voters by increasing the visibility of Stitt's wife, Sarah, in commercials and public speaking engagements.
"I think Stitt was able to neutralize that Edmondson advantage by having his wife out more," Shapard said.
Shapard said the three polls he conducted from September to the week before the election showed increasing support for Stitt among rural voters, jumping from a tie with Edmondson to a 13.5 percent lead.
Stitt's rural advantage was even greater on Election Day, and while pollsters predicted higher turnout, Shapard said the rural turnout exceeded most expectations.
"Right now, rural voters have a big say," Shapard said. "You can't just rely on doing well in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, at least not right now."
Top 10 Oklahoma counties with the largest increase in voter turnout from 2014 to 2018.
Canadian 64 percent
Ottawa 64 percent
Wagoner 55 percent
Jackson 54 percent
Tulsa 54 percent
Cherokee 53 percent
Cleveland 53 percent
McClain 52 percent
Rogers 51 percent
Oklahoma 50 percent
Source: State Election Board