In Oklahoma, Republicans look to win back state’s only blue congressional seat

Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district is the only federal office in the state not held by a Republican. Before 2018, the GOP won the district for nearly half a century. As voters in the Sooner State head to the polls today, eight individuals in the 5th district are hoping they’ll be the one to flip the seat back in November.

Despite an already protracted campaign, today’s primary threatens to end in a run-off later this summer, as the candidates continue to fight for the chance to face Democratic incumbent Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.)

Observers have gauged that frontrunner Stephanie Bice, who has held a seat in the State Senate since 2014, is the party’s best chance against Horn. But to get there, Bice will have to survive the attacks levied against her by outside spenders who have challenged her conservative record.

She’s been the target of an advertising campaign from the anti-tax Club for Growth, which sought to tie her to disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, and criticized her votes in favor of tax breaks for the film industry and a tax hike that paid for salary increases for teachers. Club for Growth has spent nearly $300,000 opposing Bice in the race.

“The fact that she’s the one who’s having negative ads run against her is probably a good sign that a faction in the Republican Party sees her as a threat,” Tyler Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, told Jewish Insider.

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Trailing Bice in the primary are businesswoman Terry Neese, former state public school superintendent Janet Barresi, businessman David Hill, Navy veteran Miles Rahimi, minister and musician Shelli Landon and Army veteran Michael Ballard. Bice has a number of advantages over the rest of the field, Johnson said, including broad name recognition from her time in Oklahoma City, the biggest fundraising haul and standing as the only candidate currently holding elected office. 

Club for Growth’s ad has been poorly received by some in the district, Johnson said, although the portion of the ad focusing on her vote for a tax increase “has the potential to be a really damaging attack within a Republican primary.”

Bice did not participate in an interview with JI.

Given the large field, no candidate is expected to win the majority needed to avoid an August runoff, though Bice is likely to come out ahead on Tuesday, Johnson said. The bigger challenge, he noted, will be winning the runoff.

Stephanie Bice photo
Stephanie Bice

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see some consolidation against her,” Johnson explained. “It’s probably ideologically more likely that [Bice’s competitors] would come together [in a runoff].” Bice has been slower to tie herself to Trump, Johnson said, and has been less vocal on conservative issues. She also has a more moderate record in the state legislature than many of her GOP colleagues, he said.

It’s that record that could pose a challenge in a runoff. 

Neese has worked to cast herself as the most conservative candidate in the race, according to Johnson, who noted that the businesswoman has tied herself closely to President Donald Trump and emphasized her positions on tentpole GOP issues like the Second Amendment.

Terry Neese

Hill said his experience in the manufacturing sector, which has included exporting products to Mexico and China, makes him the ideal choice to tackle the biggest economic challenges facing the district — and the country.

“I have run multi-million dollar businesses, even up to billion dollar businesses. And in heavy manufacturing,” he said. “Manufacturing is the backbone of any country’s economy. And so having that experience and spending a lifetime in it brings skills and understanding to the table that my competition just doesn’t have.”

A dentist-turned-oil and gas executive following her husband’s death in 2009, Barresi said that her diverse array of experiences had made he uniquely prepared to take on Washington. “I am by far the most experienced of anyone in the field,” she told Jewish Insider. But controversies from her time as superintendent of Oklahoma’s schools may hinder her congressional aspirations.

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Another issue on which some of Bice’s competitors lean in a deeply conservative direction is on Israel. In interviews with JI, neither Barresi or Hill said they supported a two-state solution.

Barresi, who visited Israel last year on a church trip and described the experience as “life-changing,” said she sees a one-state solution as the only viable option. “Israel is doing everything they can to coexist with the Palestinians, who have pledged to annihilate all of Israel. How can you have a two-state solution?” she said, claiming that any alternative would compromise Israel’s security.

Janet Barresi

“I believe the United States needs to support Israel as they work out their differences with Palestine,” Barresi continued. “I completely realize that the Palestinians have no desire to negotiate, but I think… the Israelis should never give up in pressing for peace… but we can only do that through a one-state solution.”

Hill told JI, “It seems to me that the people in Israel need to be Israelis. And people are free in Israel to be Muslim, or [Jewish], or Christian, or atheist or agnostic,” he said. “I think…that the solution has to be that instead of saying ‘Well, I’m a Palestinian, or I’m a this.’ They need to all be ‘I’m Israeli. And I live in Israel.’ It’s like in America, we have people from every nation.”

“I think as long as there are two groups, and one group hates the other group, you’re going to continue to have problems,” he said.

Hill has extensive connections to the Jewish state. His wife grew up in Israel and learned Hebrew as her first language; his son, who is serving in the U.S. Army, spent time in Israel alongside the IDF. 

Hill has visited the country with his family. “It’s an incredible, beautiful place,” he said. “It’s like a shining star.”

Oklahoma republicans
David Hill (right)

Bice voted in favor of an anti-BDS bill that passed in the Oklahoma legislature earlier this year and was signed into law last month.

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Whoever ultimately emerges victorious from the Republican primary will likely be “bloodied by this battle,” Johnson said. 

“I’m anticipating another two months [after today’s primary] of whoever emerges having to out-Trump each other,” he added. “That might make it tough for whoever emerges after August to move back toward the middle.”

In the purple 5th district, a moderate candidate is likely to have broader appeal in the general election, which gives Horn an advantage. 

Horn also has a significant fundraising advantage. She has raised over $3.3 million and still has $2.4 million in the bank, whereas Bice has raised $1 million with just $229,000 on hand. Neese has raised slightly less, but has more than $350,000 still remaining. Additional donations and outside spending are likely to pour into the district, a top target for both parties, ahead of November.

While it’s difficult to predict the result in November, Horn is “in a really good position” to keep her seat, Johnson surmised.

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