Joy Hofmeister describes herself as a moderate who can appeal to Oklahoma Republicans dissatisfied with the party’s Trumpist shift to the right.

After converting to a Democrat and announcing a run for governor, Hofmeister is taking a centrist approach to many key policy issues, including abortion rights, taxation and teaching about race in schools.

During a Thursday interview with The Frontier, the two-term state superintendent of public instruction and former lifelong Republican said she was motivated to switch parties because she disagrees with many of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s policies. 

“It became very clear to me that I no longer identify with Gov. Stitt’s Republican party,” she said. 

But she insists that she has not changed her beliefs. 

While Stitt said he would sign any anti-abortion bill that crosses his desk, Hofmeister said there are limits to what legislation she would approve, although she calls herself pro-life.  

“This is a decision that is personal and one between a woman, her doctor and her faith,” Hofmeister told The Frontier

Hofmeister criticized bills Stitt signed that courts later declared unconstitutional. The bills include two new abortion laws an Oklahoma County judge struck down this month that banned abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected and declared abortion “unprofessional conduct” for doctors. 

Another bill Stitt approved earlier this year bans certain teachings on race and gender and was motivated by conservative backlash to critical race theory. Hofmeister said the legislation was rushed and educators in the state were never consulted, making it a “recipe for problems.” 

Hofmeister would not say if she favors raising taxes to increase funding for education and calls herself “fiscally very conservative.” However, she praised a 2018 tax increase that funded a pay raise for teachers in the state. Stitt objected to the tax increase when he ran for governor in 2018, although it was enacted by a Republican-controlled Legislature and governor

Stitt has made a big issue of the 2020 McGirt U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which held that Native American reservations in Oklahoma were never disestablished and that the state does not have jurisdiction over many crimes committed on tribal lands. The governor has called the decision a disaster and warned it could lead to a further erosion of state sovereignty on matters of taxation and property rights. 

Hofmeister didn’t say whether she agreed with the court’s decision, but she accused the governor of making it a political issue. 

“I think Gov. Stitt is using this to create chaos and it is a politically charged area that divides,” Hofmeister said.  

She vowed to work closely with tribal leaders if Oklahomans elect her in the 2022 gubernatorial race.

 “That is the perfect example of why he needs to be challenged and why I am running against him,” she said. 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister talks to attendees at a town hall in Muskogee on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. Hofmeister said she is undeterred by criminal charges against her as she fights for increases in school funding. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

‘I believe in the big tent’

Hofmeister’s decision to switch political parties allows her to campaign for an entire year before the general election if she wins the Democratic nomination instead of focusing on a Republican primary in June that is likely to bring out some of the state’s most conservative voters — a base where Stitt remains popular.

Oklahoma’s political environment is challenging for Democrats but some in the party believe Hofmeister might be the right candidate to appeal to moderate Republicans willing to cross party lines. 

“I think she gives Republicans permission to consider voting for a Democrat,” said Alicia Andrews, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party. 

When Andrews heard Hofmeister was going to switch parties, her first question was, “Is she running as a real Democrat or is she looking for the path of least resistance?”

After talking with Hofmeister, and observing her recent political moves, Andrews is convinced the party switch is real, even if she didn’t end up embracing a progressive platform like former state senator Connie Johnson, who is also running for the Democratic nomination.

“I believe in the big tent, so talking about non negotiable (positions) is not a language that I speak,” Andrews told The Frontier. “That’s what I think is great about this primary, there is absolutely a choice and it is a clear choice.”

Hofmesiter had support from 34 percent of Democrats, compared to just 13 percent for Johnson in a recent poll by Amber Integrated.

The same poll showed Stitt had a 16-point lead over Hofmeister.

While Hofmeister switched to the Democratic party, Stitt’s campaign pointed out that more Oklahomans have leaned to the right in recent years. 

“Gov. Kevin Stitt is the most popular elected official in the state because he continues to demonstrate that he is a political outsider and that he is focused on making common-sense decisions for the next generation and not the next election,” Stitt’s campaign manager Donelle Harder said in a statement. “If you need more evidence that his Oklahoma Turnaround is working, more than 100,000 Oklahomans have changed their registration to join the Republican Party since Governor Stitt took office, while 80,000 have left the Democratic party.”

Hofmeister launched her campaign with an argument that Stitt’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has failed the state and he hasn’t been a strong advocate for public schools — an issue some Republicans say is enough for them to support a Democrat. 

“I supported Kevin Stitt but I feel like he hasn’t been for public education, like when he pushed for private (school) vouchers,” said Jenny Kirkland, a mother of three children in Jenks.

Kirkland, who is a registered Republican, said she realizes Hofmeister’s switch to the Democratic party might mean she won’t agree with every policy issue she takes up. But she also believes Hofmeister’s recent status as a Republican will make some conservative voters feel better about supporting her. 

“People will feel that connection to her and hopefully relate to her,” Kirkland said. “I am still a Republican and I am not changing my party. (Hofmeister) is just choosing the best platform for her to run for governor.”

Stitt’s campaign responded to Hofmeister’s candidacy by calling attention to this year’s increase in school funding, along with a teacher pay raise enacted during his first year in office. 

Hofmeister said she hopes voters will consider the candidate over party, as she has done in recent years. 

Hofmeister voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but not in 2020, she told The Frontier. In the 2018 gubernatorial race, she voted for Democrat Drew Edmondson, another self-described moderate. 

“I feel like we put moderate Democrats up there every single time but I think Joy is a very unique situation,” said Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa. “I firmly believe that there are a lot of Republicans out there who want an alternative and maybe Joy flipping gives some Republicans the chance to feel better supporting a Democrat.”

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