In the midst of a worsening pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and pushed many families to the brink of financial ruin, talks of another federal relief plan stalled last week in Washington D.C. as the president dismissed the negotiations in a tweet and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi indicated she wouldn’t give up her hardline stance.
It was yet another example of the deep partisanship that has increasingly defined a federal government jockeying ahead of next month’s election.
But U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, a first-term Democrat from Oklahoma City, is banking on her belief that most Americans — and more importantly, most of her constituents — have little appetite for the extremes.
“I’ve been frustrated since the very beginning at the games that have been played on all sides of this and I have not been afraid to call it out,” said Horn, who is seeking reelection in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District.
“I don’t care if it’s coming from the House, the Senate, the White House, Republicans, Democrats, I don’t care because the stakes are too high.”
Since her 2018 upset of Republican Steve Russell, Horn has presented herself as a moderate Democrat who can represent a purplish district where registered Republicans remain the plurality.
At times, Horn has been forced into the partisan fray, including her vote last year to impeach President Donald Trump and her first vote to support Pelosi as speaker, something she has not committed to doing again.
But Horn has also voted against her party, wearing her sixth-lowest rate of support for Democratic leadership like a badge of honor.
Contrary to the most progressive members of her party, she rejects Medicare for all, does not support a ban on hydraulic fracking, and opposed a federal minimum wage increase, joining just five other Democrats in voting against the bill.
But ranking as the sixth most contrarian Democrat still equates to nearly 87 percent support for leadership, according to ProPublica’s vote tracker.
“It’s hard to say she is a moderate when she is voting with Nancy Pelosi … so many times,” said State Sen. Stephanie Bice, the Oklahoma City Republican who is challenging Horn. “It’s hard to see a moderate spin when you’re really supporting almost every Democratic initiative.”
And therein lies the 5th district race in a nutshell — Horn is selling herself as a moderate while Bice claims that centrist stance won’t last, especially if Democrats regain control of the Senate and the White House, possibly inspiring a wave of progressive legislation.
Bice, who has represented her northwest Oklahoma City state Senate district for six years, has had her own moderating shift following a primary race that largely centered on who was Trump’s greatest defender.
Since defeating businesswoman Terry Neese in an August runoff, some of Bice’s commercials have pivoted from the president to her own record in the state Legislature, where she led a successful effort to modernize alcohol laws that have been credited for growing the state’s brewery industry.
When asked about that shift, Bice told The Frontier she didn’t agree that her primary campaign was about Trump. Instead, Bice said she supported the president’s policies more than the person, who she also said she will vote for in November.
“When you are talking about where this country is headed it’s really the policies that we are focused on,” Bice said. “It’s making sure the Green New Deal doesn’t happen because that would decimate Oklahoma’s economy with a ban on fracking. When we are talking about health care, the Democrats talk about (how) we might do a Medicare plan for all. Well, that would take away private insurance from 180 million Americans.”
Horn said she doesn’t support the Green New Deal, a proposal to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions through numerous federal government controls.
Horn also said she does not support a single-payer healthcare system.
During a televised debate Thursday, Bice accused Horn of lying about her opposition to Medicare for all.
If it were brought up for a vote in the House, your support would be “pretty likely,” Bice said.
“Actually, it’s not,” Horn responded.
Many political observers don’t see control of the U.S. House likely to shift this election, at least not as likely as the U.S. Senate or presidency.
But the 5th district race may be one of the best opportunities for Republicans to pick up a seat.
Using a weighted average from four polls, along with fundraising data and past election results, the statistical analysis publication FiveThirtyEight forecasts the 5th district race as a near tossup. In a sample of 100 outcomes, Bice wins 51 times.
On FiveThirtyEight’s list of the 50 most competitive House races, Oklahoma’s 5th district is at the top.
A GQR Research poll in early August had Horn with a five-point advantage but a late September poll from Cole Hargrave & Associates gave Bice a four-point lead.
Both campaigns have promoted internal polls that show an advantage.
The 2018 race between Horn and Russell was also a close contest even though the final forecast from FiveThirtyEight had Russell winning six out of seven times. Horn beat Russell by 3,338 votes.
A Horn win could further establish the Oklahoma City metro’s leftward shift, a product of the region’s increased diversity and Trump’s shrinking popularity in some suburbs.
A Bice win would embolden Oklahoma Republicans who view the region as a blemish on an otherwise dominant state map.
Republicans see Oklahoma County, which includes the bulk of the 5th district’s population, as the county most likely to flip for Democrat Joe Biden.
“Our threat is right here in Oklahoma County. There’s a chance Trump will not win Oklahoma County,” Pam Pollard, Republican National Committeewoman for Oklahoma, recently told The Oklahoman.
Few issues dominate the local political consciousness like the energy sector, which plays an outsized role in the district’s economy.
Oil and gas companies have effectively presented support for their industry as a zero-sum game, casting state and federal lawmakers as detractors without completed support for all fossil fuel policies.
It’s why Horn has come under attack by some for her vote last year against expanded drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the Florida coast.
“Just banning it outright becomes a detriment to the state of Oklahoma,” said Bice, accusing Horn of not supporting the oil and gas sector. “I think Oklahomans want someone who is going to fight for oil and gas.”
But Horn counters that no Oklahoma companies are seeking to drill in the Arctic or offshore. She also argues that total support for oil and gas exploration isn’t always what’s best for Oklahoma.
“My votes, I think, were actually better for Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry because it increases the competitiveness of Oklahoma in this sphere,” Horn said. “Those multi national companies (drilling offshore and in the Arctic) are not bringing jobs to Oklahoma.”
Horn also highlights her recent vote in favor of a Trump administration plan to buy oil for the nation’s emergency reserve and other policies that earned her the title of the “most pro-fossil fuel Democrat” by the conservative newspaper the Washington Examiner.
“I’ve been a strong voice for policies that are an all-of-the-above approach, including educating my colleagues on the importance of natural gas as a key part of the puzzle in reducing greenhouse emissions and supporting affordable energy and sustainable energy,” Horn said.
“My record on energy is actually a strong one.”
If energy is the issue Horn has had to defender herself most on, education is where Bice has drawn the most attacks.
Bice has been criticized for her support of past state budgets that cut education funding, leading to overcrowded classrooms, antiquated resources, and a wave of rural school districts dropping one day from their week in order to save money.
But Bice said her support for public education can be found in a vote for a 2018 teacher pay raise and her vote against a budget in 2017 because it cut school funding.
“The narrative that I am not supporting education is confusing to me because not only did I try to protect them from cuts the three years prior to the investment in 2018 but I voted against a budget that would have been a significant impact against them,” Bice said.
If she were still a state senator next year, Bice said she would not support a budget that included cuts to education.
On health care, Bice supports repeal of the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature health care policy that expanded Medicaid eligibility and enacted numerous reforms aimed at reigning in costs.
But Bice said she wouldn’t vote for repeal if it meant ending protections for pre-existing conditions.
“That’s a sticking point for me,” Bice told The Frontier.
Further reading about the race in Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district: