Rep. Kendra Horn at a town hall in Bethany on Jan. 11, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

State Sen. Stephanie Bice stood before a crowd of a couple dozen inside a downtown Edmond coffee shop on a frigid January evening, inviting questions from the audience of Republican voters who had huddled over mugs of coffee and lattes with foam art to hear from the congressional candidate.

Some voters asked about rising health care costs and recent military action in the Middle East, to which Bice said it was important for Republicans to win back the House of Representatives in order to support President Donald Trump’s agenda. 

But most of the questions had something to do with Rep. Kendra Horn, the Democratic congresswoman who flipped the fifth district in 2018, turning the heart of Oklahoma’s political map blue amidst a sea of red. 

How can you out-raise her? Can you win back Republicans who supported her? Are you prepared for a grueling election in one of the nation’s most competitive congressional seats? 

Absent were any questions about the at least seven other Republican candidates who are also running for the seat.

Horn won’t be on the June 30 Republican primary ballot, but she may be the most talked about person in the race. 

“She won’t be easy to beat, but I’m up to the challenge,” Bice said, adding that her state Senate district overlaps with parts of the fifth congressional district, giving her an intimate knowledge of the ground game required.

Janet Barresi, the former state superintendent of public instruction and a retired dentist who is also seeking the Republican nomination, has compared Horn to a root canal that needs to be removed. 

Terry Neese, an entrepreneur and founder of a staffing agency, said Horn had deceived Oklahomans into thinking she was a moderate.

“Kendra Horn is a liar and a fraud, it is time for her to go, it is time for us to take her out,” Neese said at a candidate forum last month.  

David Hill, a Republican candidate for congress, speaks with voters at a forum on Feb. 1, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Speaking at the same forum, David Hill, an oil field equipment manufacturer, called Horn a socialist, despite the fact it’s a political label she has never used. 

“I can and will defeat Kendra Horn,” Hill said. 

It’s not uncommon for a primary election to hone in on the incumbent from the other side. But the Republican primary has yet to become a race of candidates differentiating themselves from each other and is instead largely a competition to criticize Horn. 

“With Barresi or Neese or Bice or Hill, or any of the candidates really, it’s almost as if they have the same lines for Horn. Everyone seems to take the same shtick,” said JR Day, the founder of OkiePolls, which predicted 2018’s tight race that saw Horn win by fewer than 2 percentage points over Steve Russell.

That strategy by Republican candidates isn’t necessarily a wrong one, Day said, but the similarities in talking points have made it hard to determine which candidate might appeal more to primary voters. 

“It’s not that there’s no substance behind some of the Republican candidates, but it’s hard to make out because that’s the loudest drum they want to beat,” Day said. 

Made up of Pottawatomie and Seminole counties, and most of Oklahoma County, recent demographic shifts in the fifth district foretold a race two years ago where Democrats could come close. But this is still a district where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by nearly 29,000 voters

And even though the district includes most of Oklahoma City – home to a growing footprint of Democratic lawmakers in city, county and state positions –, Oklahoma Republicans had recently enjoyed near total political dominance as it’s been 20 years since a Democratic candidate for president won a single county in the state. 

State Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City

“I think most people thought this was a safe seat (for Republicans),” Bice said. 

“I did have concerns when I was knocking doors, because that summer I was up for reelection myself (in my state Senate district) and I saw quite a few Kendra Horn signs and that concerned me. But I also thought that this is still a Republican district and people would get out and vote.”

Still the underdog

Purple lights flashed as Horn walked onto the stage of the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City to officially kick off her reelection campaign last month. Two years after achieving what many political observers considered the biggest upset of the midterm election, Horn was now an incumbent with $1.8 million in her campaign war chest, more than the Republican primary field combined, according to 2019 fourth quarter finance reports. 

Despite those advantages, Horn has been targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee as one of the most vulnerable Democrats. 

“We went from being the biggest upset to one of the biggest targets in the country,” Horn told The Frontier. 

Republican candidates have attempted to draw comparisons between Horn and some of the most progressive members of the House. 

“Nancy Pelosi and AOC just lead Kendra Horn along by the nose,” said Barresi, referring to the current House speaker and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term New York congresswoman who has drawn the ire of many conservatives. 

Rep. Kendra Horn at her campaign kickoff rally at the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

But Horn’s voting record hasn’t entirely matched that of a far left progressive. She voted against a federal minimum wage increase and opposes a ban on hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production, a proposal by Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats. 

Horn also opposes a “Medicare for all” single-payer national health system, one of the core policies of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. 

“I have pushed back on my party when I felt the decisions weren’t right for Oklahoma,” Horn said.  “Extreme solutions … doesn’t solve the problem.”

Horn calls herself a Carl Albert Democrat, referring to the former Oklahoma congressman who served as Speaker of the House in the 1970’s.

“He was known for his pragmatism, for reaching out across the aisle and putting the needs of our communities and our nation above party and that’s exactly what I do day in and day out,” Horn said. 

However, Horn was forced to take a deeply partisan position last year when the House took up a vote to impeach Trump. 

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After deflecting questions about the legality of the president’s conduct for much of her first year in office, Horn ultimately voted in favor of impeachment, a decision Republican candidates have said they want to use against her.

Vicki Spaan, a Republican from Oklahoma City who voted for Trump in 2016, supported Horn in 2018 because of her support for education.

But Horn’s vote for impeachment became a “dealbreaker” for Spaan.

“I knew that if she did not stand with our president I would not be able to stand with her in the next election,” said Spaan, who plans to vote for Bice in the Republican primary. 

The Trump impeachment vote may have cost Horn support from some Republicans. But it also may have been critical to keeping some of her Democratic voters. 

“I don’t think I would have supported her if she didn’t support impeachment,” said Saundra Lenley, a Democrat from Oklahoma City. “Would I have voted for a Republican? Never. I just wouldn’t have voted.”

Karen Ross, a Democrat from Edmond, rallied in favor of impeaching President Donald Trump in Oklahoma City. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Karen Ross, a Democrat from Edmond, said her support for Horn wasn’t dependent on impeachment. But she believes Horn’s reelection odds are better because she voted for Trump’s removal.

“Kendra had a lot of people who really got out and campaigned for her (in 2018) and I think (her impeachment vote) is going to incentivize those folks to campaign for her again,” Ross said.

“I think it’s a win for her.” 

Republican zig zag

A crowd of a few hundred Oklahoma Republicans cheered each time a candidate mentioned the growing dangers of socialism in America, a claim most candidates made as they spoke at a candidate forum last month in Oklahoma City. 

“We are on a threshold of socialism in this country,” Neese said as she urged support for her campaign, receiving applause from some of the most loyal Republican voters in the district. “President Trump needs the entire House.”

Appealing to the conservative electorate is critical to winning the Republican primary in less than four months. But winning in November will require reaching moderate voters, said Day, the founder of OkiePolls. 

“I think you want Bice to win the primary if you’re a Republican strategist,” Day said. “I think her appeal and her persona is easier to go hard to the right to win the primary …. But I don’t think Bice was regarded as one of those people on the fringes of the Legislature. I think that would help her reset the narrative (in a general election).”

Bice has showcased her conservative chops – anti abortion, pro gun rights and a supporter of a border wall. 

“I don’t see myself as a moderate, I really see myself as a conservative Republican,” said Bice, who registered as a Republican at age 18. 

But Bice acknowledges her leadership on alcohol modernization laws a few years ago may have impacted her image. 

“Maybe because that particular legislation catered to a different demographic than your typical Republican voter,” Bice said. 

Bice hasn’t been at the center of many social and ideological fights at the state Capitol, but she believes there will be plenty of issues to differentiate the Republican candidate from Horn in November, including Horn’s votes against expanded oil drilling off the coast and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

“I think that was a little surprising to folks here in an oil and gas state,” Bice said. 

The energy sector is always a factor in Oklahoma elections, both in policy and funding. 

Continental Resources chairman and billionaire Harold Hamm is supporting Hill’s campaign, stating Democrats “threaten to shut down our energy industry and tank our entire economy.”

The toss up nature of the race is also likely to attract outside funding from both sides. 

Horn’s campaign benefited from more than $400,000 in the final days of the 2018 race from a political action committee backed by former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. 

Headed into the 2020 election year, Horn’s campaign as raised $1.8 million, including more than $800,000 in the final quarter of 2019, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Bice is leading Republicans with more than $643,000 in donor-raised contributions. Barresi has loaned $500,000 of her own money to her campaign, while Neese gave her campaign $450,000 in personal loans. 

Beyond the soundbites of commercials that will flood airways later this year, Horn said her campaign will talk to voters about the “practical solutions” she has fought for, including a tenant bill of rights for service members and 12 weeks paid paternal leave for federal employees. 

Horn said she also plans to spend much of the year discussing prescription drug prices and student loans. 

“We have to address our student loan crisis,” Horn said. “We don’t have to wipe out all the student loan debt or give everything away for free. We have to give people realistic pathways to get the education and job skills training they need to succeed and thrive.”

Bice said the primary race had to be more than talking points against Horn. 

“It’s all about the issues, this is what this race is about,” said Bice after a recent voter event in downtown Oklahoma City.

“But the differences between Horn and myself are the issues. That’s what I’m focused on.”