Oklahoma GOP runoff will decide challenger to Kendra Horn

Accusations mark home stretch between Terry Neese, Stephanie Bice

Oklahoma Rep. Kendra Horn, one of the most vulnerable members of the House, will find out her Republican opponent after Tuesday’s primary runoff in the 5th District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Oklahoma Rep. Kendra Horn, one of the most vulnerable members of the House, will find out her Republican opponent after Tuesday’s primary runoff in the 5th District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 24, 2020 at 7:00am

Corrected, 11:15 a.m. | Oklahoma Republicans will pick their nominee to challenge vulnerable Democrat Kendra Horn in a primary runoff in the 5th District on Tuesday that pits a Trump-centric businesswoman against a more moderate state lawmaker. 

Terry Neese, the former owner of an employment agency, has taken pains to express her loyalty to President Donald Trump, saying that he is “the best president we have ever had” and that she is running to “stand up for Trump and move his agenda through Congress.” 

Her opponent, state Sen. Stephanie Bice, also expresses admiration for the president. But she doesn’t mention him as frequently, focusing instead on her record defending “conservative values,” such as fiscal responsibility, abortion opposition and gun rights. 

It’s a nuanced distinction, but one that displays sharply divergent views within the Republican Party about how to win back suburban districts like this one, in and around Oklahoma City, that Horn flipped in 2018. 

‘Future of the country’ at stake

“It’s not overstating that the future of the country is determined by elections like these,” Bice said at a debate last week. “There is a real difference in this race.”

Overall this year, candidates who have adhered most closely to the president have prevailed in GOP primaries across the country.

But some Republican strategists say privately they fear that strategy will put them at a disadvantage in competitive districts in November, when they will have to appeal to moderate and independent voters who are less likely to be satisfied with the president’s job performance. 

Neese, a longtime figure in the Oklahoma GOP,  appeared to be in a strong position in the last days of the race, but she also faced a series of critical news stories recently. They included reports that she had instructed employees at her former company to lie to clients, that she profited from a charity that she runs and that she made misleading statements about her relationship to the Cherokee Nation. 

Neese led in June primary

She had a comfortable lead in the nine-way primary in June, finishing with 37 percent to Bice’s 25 percent. 

And while she trailed Bice in fundraising — loaning her campaign $450,000 to bring her total receipts to $1.2 million through Aug. 5, compared with Bice’s $1.5 million — she received significantly more outside support. 

Bice, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, began the runoff campaign with attack ads questioning Neese’s commitment to gun rights. In another recent ad, she argues that she is the candidate best positioned to beat a Democrat. 

But those messages had to compete with a flood of negative ads from the anti-tax Club for Growth, which endorsed Neese after the primary but had already been paying for ads attacking Bice for months. 

The group spent $960,000 opposing Bice, including in a TV ad in the run-up to the primary that linked her to “convicted rapist and Democrat donor” Harvey Weinstein because of her vote for a film tax credit. Recently, the group put out an ad claiming that Bice had voted to raise her own legislative salary “while Oklahomans were losing jobs because of COVID-19.” That claim has been refuted by local media, and Bice said the club had ignored a request from her campaign to take down the ad. 

And the spending on Bice’s behalf hasn’t always worked in her favor. She got $92,000 in support from the American Jobs and Growth PAC, which circulated flyers falsely claiming she had been endorsed by the anti-abortion Oklahomans for Life, creating an opening for Neese, who has accused her of lying about that endorsement and another from Vice President Mike Pence. 

Other outside groups spending on the race include the Future Leaders Fund, which spent $16,000 supporting Bice. Conservative Outsider PAC and Freedomworks for America spent $34,000 and $2,500 respectively on Neese’s behalf. 

Accusations in home stretch

The campaign has become increasingly contentious in the final stretch, after the local investigative news website The Frontier reported, on the day of the candidates’ last debate, that Neese had been pressured to withdraw her nomination for a George W. Bush-era post heading the U.S. Mint after recordings surfaced in which she instructed employees at her former employment agency to “lie when communicating with a client, make pretend phone calls, promise clients unconfirmed raises and to ‘manipulate people 24 hours a day.’”

Neese called that report “an absolute lie” and accused Bice onstage of leaking the story.

The winner will emerge with a depleted campaign account — each had less than $100,000 on hand as of Aug. 5. Horn, who won 86 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary against an opponent who spent $11,000, had $2.6 million in the bank at the end of June. And money is already flowing into the November race, with groups on both sides reserving millions of dollars in airtime for fall ads in the Oklahoma City market.

While Trump carried the district by 14 points in 2016, Horn won the seat in 2018 by a point, becoming the first Democrat to represent the 5th District in more than 40 years. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the fall race a Toss-up.

The result of the Democratic primary has been corrected in this report.