Cheers erupted as famed Trump associate Roger Stone endorsed John Bennett’s run for Congress in an airplane hangar in Yukon.
Bennett, the chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, announced his bid Friday for the 2nd Congressional District after Markwayne Mullin vacated the seat to run for U.S. Senate.
Bennett will continue to campaign against fellow Republicans while he also runs the state party, his chief of staff Leslie NesSmith told The Frontier. At least three other Republican contenders will compete against Bennett in the June primary.
NesSmith said the earliest Bennett would consider stepping down from the party would be after the state’s candidate filing period the second week of April. But she believes Bennett should stay on as chairman even past that period. Bennett has not started the process to find a replacement, she said.
NesSmith believes the Oklahoma Republican Party could collapse if Bennett resigns.
The party is already in financial shambles and is divided following Bennett’s endorsement of Tulsa pastor Jackson Lahmeyer over incumbent U.S. Sen. James Lankford. Bennett also faced growing calls for his ouster last year after he compared COVID-19 vaccine mandates to the yellow Star of David that Jews were made to wear during the Holocaust.
“We have a grassroots party who loves this chairman — and I mean, they love him,” NesSmith said. “He has support much like Trump has support. So the worst thing for the Republican Party, no matter what side you’re on, I would think the last thing any of those groups would want is for the party to collapse again.”
Bennett did not respond to requests to comment from The Frontier.
Lahmeyer, a staunch ally and supporter of the chairman, told The Frontier that he does not believe Bennett should resign and said he “should run for office while remaining state party chair.”
State party rules are silent on whether the chairman should step down before running for office, but Pam Pollard, Oklahoma state Republican Party’s National Committeewoman said some people believe Bennett’s congressional run could pose a conflict of interest
“One of the duties as the chairman is to have general oversight over all elections and many people feel like it’s a conflict of interest to be a candidate and to have general oversight over all elections,” Pollard said.
The situation is not without precedent.
Former Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Gary Jones resigned while running for state auditor in 2006 and again in 2010.
Running for office while leading a political party poses a “massive conflict of interest,” Jones said. “The chairman’s not supposed to take a stance in the primary,” he said. “And how do you not take a stance in the primary if you are one of the candidates? And obviously your time is going to be focused on something else, I think it’s important that whoever’s the chairman is able to focus on Republicans winning in November and not personally.”
Some, including the chairman of the Oklahoma Federation of College Republicans, believe Bennett should resign.
“I think it is only right, as someone that’s now running for a federal office, that he just resigns,” said Jonathon Hernandez, Chairman of the College Republicans. “Obviously, I don’t say that with malice I just simply say that in the sense of I want to have the person who is the chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party to be focused on that one thing.”
Three other Republicans have already announced bids for the open congressional seat, including state Sen. Marty Quinn, Chris Schiller, Erick Wyatt.
Quinn, R-Claremore, is the candidate with the most name recognition, having served in the Oklahoma Legislature for nearly 12 years.
“That’s his business,” Quinn said outside the Senate chamber when asked about Bennett not resigning. “He’s the one who has to make that decision so I’ll just leave that up to him.”
Since there is no explicit party rule that says Bennett must resign, supporters believe he should continue serving as chairman.
“What we have is we have some people within the party, who like to hold certain people to unwritten rules,” NesSmith said. “And being that we’re the party of the rule of law, that should be unacceptable to us. If there is something that is that important in our party that could be that divisive we need to put it into writing and make it a rule.”
While Pollard would not say whether or not she believes Bennett should resign, she did say she will work to ensure all Republican candidates have the “resources of the Oklahoma GOP” at their disposal regardless of the race they’re running in or the chairman.
Correction: This article has been edited to correct the spelling of two names.