How Kevin Stitt bought the Oklahoma Governor’s Mansion, and how he can get his money back
A year and a half ago he was a political unknown entering a crowded field of contenders to replace Mary Fallin. Now he’s Governor Kevin Stitt. He didn’t have experience of any kind in the political realm and in fact had never voted in a gubernatorial primary before. He was facing the sitting Lt. Governor, the long-serving mayor of the largest city in the state, the sitting State Auditor and former GOP state chairman, a firebrand preacher and former state Representative, and another personally wealthy Tulsan who already possessed both experience and name recognition. And that was his competition just to get to the November ballot where he would face the scion of an Oklahoma political family, an opponent who had four statewide general election victories on his resume. But the man who would be Oklahoma’s 28th governor had two things going for him. He had no political record for anyone to attack and he had a whole lot of his own money that he was willing to spend.
Prior to the primary on June 26th, 2018, the Stitt campaign received just over $2 million in contributions. That’s certainly a healthy amount, slightly more than what Mick Cornett collected over the same time period and not far behind the nearly $2.7 million in contributions to Todd Lamb. But Stitt had a revenue stream in addition to those contributions, loans from himself. By primary day he had put $2,781,000 of his own money into his campaign, including $606 thousand on June 15th. With this massive warchest he purchased name recognition and sold himself as an outsider. In debates and speeches he avoided unforced errors by sticking to the platitudes, boosterism, and corporate-speak at which modern CEOs usually excel. It was still just barely enough to finish second, edging out Lt. Gov. Lamb by less than 2,500 votes to get into the runoff.
During that runoff campaign Stitt raised another one and a quarter million dollars. Mayor Cornett was almost $200 thousand ahead in contributions during those two months, but that still put him $800 thousand back of his opponent’s total as Stitt loaned his campaign another $1 million. Outspent and unable to connect with enough voters outside of the Oklahoma City metro, Cornett fell behind and Stitt was nominated.
Democrat nominee Drew Edmondson raised over $4.1 million and spent nearly three quarters of it after winning the primary in June. A big reason why it was thought that he could win in November was because he had the ability to raise enough money to be competitive. But he couldn’t keep up with Stitt whose campaign spent $3.2 million from the runoff to November 6th. Part of that came from yet more loans, totaling $1,150,000 from Stitt to his campaign.
Kevin Stitt put just short of $5 million into the race in the form of loans. Add to that the $5.7 million in contributions he received and each vote that he received on Nov. 6th cost about $16.50. There’s a reason he, and most other candidates, make loans to their campaigns rather than just making a deposit in the account. Those loans can be paid back. Campaign finance accounts can stay active for years after election day and, among other things, can continue to receive donations. In fact, many losing candidates will try to raise money to pay themselves back and at least recoup some of their financial investment. And of course winning candidates can fill the coffers for the next election. But Oklahoma has never seen anything on the scale of the Stitt campaign before in the total raised, spent, or self-loaned.
On Jan. 31st the Stitt for Governor 2018 committee filed it’s quarterly report to the Ethics Commission. There are no entries for payments on those loans so far, but it’s not for a lack of funds. Since election day Stitt’s campaign has received over $119 thousand in contributions that obviously aren’t going to be used to defeat Drew Edmondson. $36 thousand of that total is PAC money. What sort of political action are those PACs trying to accomplish by giving money after the election is over? Those who want to give the benefit of the doubt may wonder if these are supporters who are making additional donations. Of the 74 contributors, only 14 appear to having given anything previously. However, twenty of those first-time donors made the maximum individual contribution of $2,700. The campaign account will continue to accept donations that can go right back out of the account and into Governor Stitt’s pocket. It’s perfectly legal. The only difference from what other Oklahoma politicians have done is that the amounts are far higher than anything before, and the only question is if and when will the Governor’s loans be repaid to him in full.