Super PACs and dark money groups have poured more than $12.5 million into television ads attacking Gov. Kevin Stitt and boosting his Democratic opponent Joy Hofmeister before the November election.
The outside groups have so far spent more than the Stitt and Hofmeister campaigns combined, data from advertising analysis firm AdImpact shows. Stitt has spent about $4.3 million on television advertising, compared to $743,000 Hofmeister has spent, according to data through Oct. 3. Many of the independent groups are organized as or are funded by 501(c)4 non-profits that do not have to publicly reveal their donors, dodging financial disclosure rules.
During a brief interview after a campaign event on Friday, Stitt said he believes some of the funding for the groups is coming from Chad Richison, the CEO of the Oklahoma City-based company Paycom Software Inc., and the leaders of Oklahoma tribal nations, who he referred to as “casino bosses.”
“I really think Joy needs to answer for it. Where’s it coming from?” Stitt said in the interview after a campaign event Friday.
Leaders for the Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole tribes denied having any involvement with the outside groups funding the ads against Stitt. Richison did not respond to requests for comment.
A few of the tribes have contributed directly to Hofmeister’s campaign. The Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes each gave $2,900 to Hofmeister.
Five of the state’s largest tribes, the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole and Chickasaw nations, publicly endorsed Hofmeister on Tuesday.
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Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., one of the most vocal anti-Stitt tribal leaders, did not confirm or deny involvement.
“We have just tried to support candidates and causes that make a difference for Oklahoma,” Hoskin said in an interview earlier this month. “And I think that we’ve raised a lot of issues that have, I think, put him in a bad light.”
Chief of the Choctaw Nation, Gary Batton said on Tuesday that “definitely we have used some of our money to support Joy” and that he plans to “continue to do that” as the election progresses.
During an interview at a Democratic fundraiser earlier this month, Hofmeister said she has no ties to the outside spending.
“That isn’t me and I don’t have any control over who supports me,” she said. “But what I do see is that many people regardless of their party affiliation, and even their backgrounds, rural, suburban, urban, they’re coming out valuing the same things that I value: common sense, respect for one another, working together and actually getting things done.”
In 2016, Hofmeister and four others were charged with a felony for coordinating with a Super PAC that was running negative ads against her opponent during the 2014 race for State Superintendent. Hofmeister always maintained her innocence and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater eventually dropped the charges and signed-off on an expungement, she said in a statement to The Frontier.
“I am proud to have stood up to an underhanded political opponent on behalf of our kids,” she said. “The DA not only dropped the charges, which came from baseless attacks in 2014, but actually signed an expungement indicating they should never have happened in the first place.”
A lack of transparency surrounding spending from outside groups makes it difficult for voters to discern who is behind the political ads.
Imagine This Oklahoma, one of the most recent Super PACs to back Hofmeister with independent ads, was formed on July 29. But voters won’t know who the group’s financial backers are until a week before the Nov. 8 election. The group isn’t required to file any financial disclosures with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission until the next deadline on Oct. 31.
Imagine This Oklahoma has so far spent $2.4 million in support of Hofmeister and attacking Stitt. During the same period, Stitt spent $1.3 million and Hofmeister spent about $596,000. The group has purchased TV ads that have been airing across the state in September and October that describe Hofmeister as someone who “stood up to DC politicians” and “who will fight against Kevin Stitt and his record of scandal and corruption.”
According to a filing with the Ethics Commission, Danielle Ezell of the Oklahoma City-based political consulting firm Heartland Campaigns is the group’s treasurer and Jeremy Jackson is the chairman. In the filing, Jackson is listed to work for an organization called New Direction Oklahoma that has a post office box in Oklahoma City but is not registered with the Secretary of State.
Ezell declined to comment. Attempts to reach Jackson were unsuccessful and an email address listed for him on the filing wasn’t functional.
Ezell is also the listed agent of The Oklahoma Project, another anti-Stitt Super PAC primarily funded by dark money. Larry Stone, listed as The Oklahoma Project’s chairman and treasurer, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Oklahoma Project has so far spent $2.6 million on advertising attacking Stitt. The group was one of the first anti-Stitt Super PACs to launch and started running negative ads in early 2021. The Oklahoma Project is primarily funded by the 501c4 non-profit Oklahoma Forward, which was incorporated in 2020 by Oklahoma City-based attorney Brian Ted Jones, who declined to comment.
The dark money group Sooner State Leadership Fund, led by former Republican state Rep. Trebor Worthen, has so far spent the most opposing Stitt. Sooner State Leadership spent over $5.1 million on ads critical of Stitt leading up to the June primary but does not appear to have been active since. Worthen told The Oklahoman in March that they have $10 million to spend.
Worthen didn’t respond to a request for comment.
As a 501c4, Sooner State Leadership does not have to file any financial disclosures with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. Federal law allows 501c4s to support or oppose candidates for office as long as it isn’t their primary activity.
According to Federal Election Commission records, Sooner State Leadership made donations to other Super PACs in Oklahoma this summer.
In early August, Sooner State Leadership donated $1 million to the Fund for a Working Congress, a Super PAC that supported state Rep. Avery Frix’s failed Congressional campaign. Sooner State Leadership also donated $525,000 to Hometown Freedom Action Network in mid-June.
Hometown Freedom Action Network spent $276,463 on mailers opposing Stitt and also donated $190,000 to Battle Ready PAC, which spent $141,000 on TV ads supporting a Republican challenger to Stitt before the primary.
Another national group, Conservative Voice of America, spent over $2 million leading up to the primary attempting to paint Stitt as soft on crime.