Dr. Ervin Yen’s campaign headquarters takes up two rooms in a modest-size home by Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City. The walls are cluttered with documents outlining his longshot strategy to win as an independent candidate for governor in a state where no such contender has amassed more than 23% of the vote.
Yen is only polling at 3.9%, according to a recent poll of 402 likely voters conducted by SoonerPoll. He’s also only raised $192,227, according to his latest campaign finance report.
But in a tight gubernatorial race, Yen’s candidacy could prove to be a spoiler for incumbent Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt or Democratic challenger Joy Hofmeister, who are polling neck and neck, according to SoonerPoll.
In a race as tight as this year’s gubernatorial contest, every vote counts. And if voters don’t like Stitt or Hofmeister, they have two other options to choose from between Yen and Libertarian candidate Natalie Bruno.
“Our polling shows the margins are really tight and when it’s so close like this, an independent candidate could get just enough protest votes to throw the election off,” said Kyle Loveless, a pollster at SoonerPoll. “Considering that it’s an off presidential year, turnout will be lower and the slightest of margins could make difference, but the question is from who?”
According to SoonerPoll, Yen is pulling some Democratic votes – 6.4% of the 127 Democrats polled said they would vote for Yen. And he’s pulling some independents with 15.2% of the 43 polled saying they’d vote for him.
“You might get people who maybe are not happy with Stitt’s performance, but they can’t pull themselves to check the box for the Democrat so they say ‘I’ll just vote for the independent or vote for the libertarian,’” said Michael Crespin, curator and director of the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma.
It’s happened before in Oklahoma.
Gary Richardson didn’t have a chance at winning the Governor’s mansion in 2002, but the former Republican Congressional nominee turned independent gubernatorial candidate proved to be a spoiler, siphoning enough votes away from Republican Steve Largent to cost him the election.
Largent, who represented Oklahoma’s 1st Congressional District until resigning in 2002 to run for governor, was widely considered a shoe-in over Democrat Brad Henry. But Largent lost the election by less than 7,000 votes thanks in part to Richardson’s independent campaign. Richardson received over 145,000 votes mostly in Largent-friendly areas of the state.
“He definitely took out enough votes to deny me a chance to (sit in) the governor’s chamber,” Largent told The Frontier. “So you know, to say it hurt is definitely true.”
Yen said that former Democratic Gov. David Walters, who still has a hand in Democratic politics in Oklahoma, asked him to step off the ticket fearing that he might take much-needed votes away from Hofmeister.
Walters confirmed that he did reach out to Yen at the beginning of the campaign to ask him to step off the ballot. But now that the race has progressed, Walters said he believes Hofmeister “has a great chance to win even with him on the ballot.”
A self-described ‘moderate conservative’ with pro-choice views
Yen considers himself a “moderate conservative.” An anesthesiologist, Yen says he’s running to fix healthcare in Oklahoma. He also wants to increase teacher pay and revamp funding for public education by equally distributing school funds by ZIP code.
Yen was pro-life as a Republican state senator, but he voted against a bill that would have made performing an abortion a felony and changed his stance after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, which led to Oklahoma’s near-total ban on abortion.
“I had to think long and hard about my stance,” Yen said in an interview with The Frontier. “And (now) we have the strictest abortion ban in the country with no exceptions for rape and incest. That’s just wrong.”
Yen believes voters want an “unequivocally pro-choice” candidate. He hopes to siphon votes away from Stitt, who has called himself “the most pro-life governor” and Hofmeister, who has been less clear on her views on abortion.
Yen served as state senator for District 40 in the northwest Oklahoma City metro area for one term between 2014 and 2018, when he was voted out in the primary after anti-vaccination groups targeted him for his pro-vaccine stances. Yen announced his run for governor in 2021 as a Republican before switching to an independent in late 2022.
Yen, a Catholic, believed it was easy to be pro-life when Roe v. Wade gave constitutional protection to abortion rights, but now his view has changed. Yen does not believe life begins at conception. He believes women should be able to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester.
Despite his confidence, the chances of him winning are still unlikely, but the chances of him playing the spoiler like what happened in 2002 are slightly higher.
“(With me on the ballot) I’m not going to help Stitt get reelected, I am not going to help Hofmeister get elected, I am going to get elected and I’m going to change the state of Oklahoma,” Yen said.