In this Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, photo Oklahoma Republican gubernatorial candidate Mick Cornett, left, speaks during a candidate debate in Oklahoma City. At center is Democratic candidate Drew Edmondson. At right is Republican candidate Kevin Stitt, who Cornett will face in a runoff Tuesday, Aug. 28. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Mayor, businessman face off in Oklahoma governor GOP runoff

August 28, 2018 - 12:09 am

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The race for the GOP nomination in Oklahoma's race for governor could hinge less on experience and ideology, and more on the state's geography and the candidates' allegiance to President Donald Trump.

In a race that has grown increasingly testy in recent weeks, longtime Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, 60, and Gateway Mortgage Company founder Kevin Stitt, 45, have touted their conservative credentials as they seek to replace term-limited GOP Gov. Mary Fallin.

Cornett has come under fire from Stitt, who attacked the former mayor in one ad as not being supportive enough of Trump or his immigration policies.

In a televised debate last week, Cornett shot back, criticizing Stitt as a Johnny-come-lately to Oklahoma's Republican political scene.

"Where have you been over the last 14 years?" Cornett said during the debate on Oklahoma City's KOCO-TV. "You haven't been on the front lines fighting for conservative principles."

Stitt, though, has fully embraced his standing as a businessman and political outsider.

"I've been in the private sector, in the real world creating jobs," Stitt responded. "I haven't been cashing a government check."

Republican candidates who try to align themselves more closely with Trump have seen success in a number of other states, including neighboring Kansas, said GOP political consultant Trebor Worthen.

"The Republican Party is President Trump's party, and any politician that you see across the country who has not been adequately supportive of President Trump has paid a price for that," Worthen said. "The line of attack that the Stitt campaign is leveling against Mayor Cornett for not supporting President Trump in 2016 is a very effective line of attack."

The two men's performance in the 10-candidate field in July broke along geographical lines, with Cornett winning big in Oklahoma City and central Oklahoma, and Stitt taking counties in Tulsa and eastern Oklahoma. Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, who finished a close third in the race and performed well in many rural counties, hasn't endorsed either candidate.

Those geographical differences separate the two candidates more than political ideology, said Republican political consultant Pat McFerron, who worked on Lamb's campaign.

"There might be a slight ideological difference, but it's very minor," McFerron said of Cornett and Stitt. "I think we're going to see a much larger difference on geography."

Both men have touted their opposition to abortion and support of Trump, but differed on their support of a tax increase this year narrowly approved by the Legislature to help pay for the first teacher pay hike in a decade. Cornett has said he supported Fallin's signing of the bill, while Stitt has said he wouldn't have signed it.

Stitt has been able to outpace Cornett in fundraising mainly by bolstering his campaign with personal loans totaling more than $3.2 million so far, bringing his total raised to more than $6.5 million. Cornett has raised more than $3.2 million, but his campaign has been aided by two outside groups that have spent nearly $1 million on pro-Cornett ads.

The winner of Tuesday's GOP primary will advance to November's general election against former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who easily secured his party's nomination in June.

Republicans running for statewide office in Oklahoma have enjoyed dominating success at the ballot box in the last decade, but Democrats are pinning their hopes on Edmondson, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran and four-term attorney general. Edmondson hopes to tap into voter frustration with the GOP Legislature exacerbated by this spring's statewide teacher walkout and an anti-Trump sentiment that has energized Democratic voters. Edmondson met frequently with some of the tens of thousands of teachers who thronged the Capitol during the two-week walkout and talks on the stump about his experience as a young high school teacher in his hometown of Muskogee.

Libertarian voters also get to cast their ballot in Tuesday's primary runoff between Chris Powell of Bethany and Rex Lawhorn of Broken Arrow.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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