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Oklahoma's Democratic candidate for governor uses education policy to build momentum

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Republicans have won elections in recent years by running on education. In Oklahoma, which is one of the reddest states in the nation, the issue of education may be turning out a little differently because the Democrat running for governor is catching up on the Republican incumbent. Here's StateImpact Oklahoma's Robby Korth.

ROBBY KORTH, BYLINE: Let me take you back to the race for governor in Virginia last year. Republican Glenn Youngkin pulled off an upset by beating Democratic favorite Terry McAuliffe. His blueprint - parental rights in education, from where kids go to school to exactly what they learn. In Oklahoma, education has always been important, and Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt is trying to use that Virginia blueprint to get enough votes for a second term.

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KEVIN STITT: We have to allow parents to vote with their feet and say, there's a better option for my kid to go to this trade school or this private school, this charter school or this other specialized school.

KORTH: Governor Stitt's challenger is moderate Democrat Joy Hofmeister. She was the state's Republican superintendent of public instruction. She says she switched parties to beat Stitt.

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JOY HOFMEISTER: Let's keep fighting for the future of our state.

KORTH: Hofmeister has a surprising amount of support. Many moderate Republicans oppose Stitt's embrace of school-choice policies like private-school scholarships and charter expansion. A handful of nonpartisan polls released in the last few weeks show a tight race, while practically all other Republicans enjoy double-digit leads.

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HOFMEISTER: As we head into the final weeks of the campaign, this race tightens to single digits.

KORTH: The focus on education policy by the candidates makes sense to observers.

DEVEN CARLSON: Education policy can enter into those gubernatorial races because education is ultimately a state-level issue.

KORTH: That's Deven Carlson, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma. He says this race is like a lot of others around the country and represents how the education landscape has changed in politics.

CARLSON: Over time, education has become a more partisan issue, where public education and the attendant interests are associated with the Democratic Party, and school choice is more generally associated with the Republican Party.

KORTH: And a Democrat hasn't won statewide office here since 2006. Stitt has gone to the right on education, opposing mask mandates in schools during the height of the pandemic and calling for private-school vouchers. Hofmeister is making the race close by striking a moderate tone in throwing support to traditional public schools.

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HOFMEISTER: We are going through extremism, partisanship and ineffective leadership. And I don't think that's good for Oklahoma, and I am going to fight against that.

KORTH: Bill Shapard is the founder of SoonerPoll. He asked more than 400 likely voters about their preferences in the upcoming governors election.

BILL SHAPARD: What we're seeing is that the Republican is not just being able to rely on just his own base because his base has become more moderate in their thinking.

KORTH: While Hofmeister has won many in her new party, Stitt seems to be losing more Republicans to his challenger. Shapard says...

SHAPARD: Why is that? Is it because they kind of see her as a Republican, and they liked her as a Republican, and they're willing to kind of stick with her a little bit? Maybe they have some sort of beef with Governor Stitt over education or something else?

KORTH: That something else could be abortion or inflation. But education is definitely motivating voters here.

For NPR News, I'm Robby Korth in Oklahoma City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robby Korth joined KOSU as its news director in November 2022.
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