Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister turned heads recently when she announced she was switching to the Democratic Party to challenge Gov. Kevin Stitt in next year's election.
The lifelong Republican was elected superintendent of public instruction in 2014, defeating Janet Barresi in the primary and longtime Cherokee County superintendent John Cox. She had previously served on the Oklahoma State Board of Education when Gov. Mary Fallen appointed her. In 2018, she again defeated Cox. Hofmeister has said that while her party affiliation has changed, her values have not. She also said Stitt has hijacked the GOP and that Oklahomans are tired of his partisan politics.
Politicians have been more likely to switch parties in recent years, but Hofmeister's decision came as a surprise to many in the Oklahoma Legislature.
"I'm not surprised she's challenging Gov. Stitt," said Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee. "I've heard rumors over the last year or two that she was wanting to aspire for higher office and the governorship was something she was looking at. But I never thought I would see her flip parties to run."
Pemberton still doesn't think Hofmeister has improved her chances of winning, though. She joins former State Sen. Connie Johnson as candidates for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, independent Paul Tay, Libertarian Natalie Bruno, and Republican Ervin Yen have also thrown their hats into the ring.
Some have seen Hofmeister's registration change as a sign the Republican Party is becoming more divided. Yolette Ross, Cherokee County Democratic Party chair, doesn't normally like to see politicians switch political parties, but she was happy for this case of crossing the aisle.
"She has a reputation of challenging the governor," she said. "She's just not following him off the cliff. She's challenged him in many public forums and has gone after him. In this instance, I'm kind of glad, because she does have a following. She has a lot of name recognition and may be a good fit to challenge the governor."
Ross would like to see the next governor tackle criminal justice reform, specifically looking at the fines imposed through Oklahoma's court system.
"I understand that's a way for municipalities or the state to recoup funds, but it's also a way to block people from moving on with their lives," she said. "They've got these fines, they can't pay them, and then they get a traffic stop and there's a warrant out for them. So the cycle repeats itself and they're taken back into custody."
Oklahoma residents have leaned further to the GOP for years now, and facing an incumbent Stitt in a Republican primary would be a tough task for any candidate. State Rep. Bob Ed Culver, R-Tahlequah, said it will still be an uphill battle for Hofmeister, but believes she would make a good governor. Either way, he thinks the state's next leader should stay the current course.
"I think we've got the state going in a good direction," he said. "It looks good with the price of oil and gas up, and hopefully the COVID is kind of behind us. From what I've seen, it looks like our revenue is up in the state."
This isn't the first time someone has shifted sides for political gain. Cherokee County Libertarian Party Shannon Grimes pointed to State Rep. David Hardin, R-Stilwell, who previously ran as a Democrat for Adair County sheriff; and Cox, who flipped over to the GOP to run for state superintendent again this year. Grimes is likely to vote for Bruno, but said he doesn't automatically give a candidate his vote based on party. He would like to see the next governor work to end certificate of need laws, so more hospitals or hospital-like businesses could start up.
"If somebody wanted to start up a competing hospital, they would literally have to get permission in Tahlequah from the Tahlequah City Hospital [now Northeastern Health System]," Grimes said. "It creates monopolies that let these places drive up prices and degrades overall care."
Whether Hofmeister or Johnson make it out of the primary, or another undeclared candidate, Democrats are hopeful the 2022 governor race will see closer margins than Stitt's 2018 victory over Drew Edmondson.
"I think Hofmeister is a serious candidate, regardless of her party," said Dell Barnes, Cherokee County Democratic Party vice chair. "Her public comments of the last year or more seem to be more in line with Oklahoma's moderate Democrats and Republicans than the newer hard-edge conservatism the governor has been courting. I think the Oklahoma Democrats will have a robust primary this cycle due to her announcement."
In a Facebook Saturday Forum, the Daily Press asked readers how they feel about the superintendent's decision to switch parties.
Sarah Johnson doesn't think Hofmeister has a shot at winning as a Democrat.
"However, I admire her for making the switch if she truly doesn't align with the Republican platform anymore," she wrote. "If she's on the ballot with Stitt, I'll definitely vote for her."
Judy Cox believes the newly registered Democrat does have a chance, maybe.
"If the straight-party choice was removed from ballots and the party affiliation wasn't printed after the names, she'd have a better chance," Cox said. "I'll vote for her if she's on the ballot."
Andy Page said Hofmeister is "pandering for votes."
Several participants don't think a Democrat can win the governorship in Oklahoma. Others said they'll vote for anyone other than Stitt.
"At this point, I'd vote for Fallin again," said Dawnya Madina.
Cherokee County Republican Party Chair Josh Owen did not return phone calls by press time.
What you said
In an online poll, readers were asked if Hofmeister has a chance to defeat Gov. Stitt in next year's election. Of the respondents, 36.1 percent said, "Yes, absolutely"; 26.3 percent chose, "No, definitely not"; 17.3 percent answered, "Yes, possibly"; 15 percent said, "No, probably not"; and 5.3 percent were uncertain.