Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas in August 2022.
Lev Radin—Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
November 1, 2022 2:47 PM EDT

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt was supposed to cruise to re-election. He’s a Republican running in a reliably red state; Donald Trump walloped Joe Biden there in 2020, drawing nearly two out of every three votes. And Stitt is on the ballot in a year when his party is poised to have the upper hand.

Yet the Republican Governors Association has just released a seven-figure ad buy to help Stitt over the finish line. And prominent Republicans like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are rushing to his side, as party leaders fear Oklahoma might be the site of one of the biggest upsets of the midterms.

That may seem like the sign of a flailing GOP in a place where the party should be at its strongest. But it’s more complicated than that.

That’s because Stitt’s Democratic opponent, Joy Hofmeister, the superintendent of Oklahoma’s public school system, was a lifelong Republican until last year. “I was a Republican longer than Governor Stitt was registered to vote,” she tells TIME. “I’m fiscally conservative. I’m aggressively moderate. Always have been.”

In other words, she’s a Democrat in name only. The latest polling has Hofmeister with a slim three-point lead over Stitt, according to the Oklahoma City-based firm Ascend Action.

The tight race is largely the result of a series of missteps by Stitt, from scandals that have plagued his administration to a bitter feud with Oklahoma’s 39 American Indian tribes. Stitt also signed into law one of the country’s most restrictive abortion bills, which has drawn some pushback even in conservative Oklahoma for its banning the procedure in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s health is at risk. And he oversaw one of America’s highest COVID death rates, with roughly 17,000 lives lost.

Hofmeister, 58, says she switched parties because she wanted to challenge Stitt but knew trying to do so in the Republican primary would be futile. “Governor Stitt has hijacked the Republican Party,’ she adds. “He is pandering to extremism.”

Stitt’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this report.

Oklahoma political analysts suspect Hofmeister’s party switch has paid dividends in a race where most Democrats wouldn’t stand a fighting chance. “I think her being a lifelong Republican makes her more palatable to a lot of Oklahomans,” says Rachel Blum, a politics professor at the University of Oklahoma.

But as Hofmeister’s campaign has been building momentum, more Republicans have been coming to Stitt’s rescue. On Monday, DeSantis endorsed him, and on Tuesday, Cruz is holding a rally for him in Oklahoma City.

Stitt, 49, who founded the financial services firm Gateway First Bank before entering politics, also loaned his campaign roughly $1 million over the weekend. It’s yet another sign that Republicans are spending resources on a race that only a few months ago they would have considered an afterthought.

The governor’s political troubles began in his first year in office, when he filed a lawsuit to renegotiate the state’s gambling compact with the tribes and collect more state revenue from their casinos. The move created a major confrontation with a powerful constituency in the state.

Oklahoma has one of the nation’s highest percentages of American Indian citizens, at roughly 10%, according to the latest U.S. Census data. The tribal casino operations are also a pivotal part of the state’s economy. Since nearby Texas doesn’t have gaming, Oklahoma’s southern border is littered with casinos, including the world’s largest casino is in Thackerville.

Read more: How Alaska Native Mary Peltola Plans to Beat Sarah Palin a Second Time

The courts tossed Stitt’s suit out, but the dispute triggered a widespread backlash—five of the six largest tribes in Oklahoma have endorsed Hofmeister.

“Basically, it just united all the tribes here in Oklahoma,” David Hill, the principal chief of the Muscogee Nation, tells TIME. The court battles amounted to a waste of taxpayer money, he went on, much of which comes from the tribes doing business in the state. “It’s insulting to get sued with your own money.”

Hofmeister has hammered Stitt, himself a member of the Cherokee Nation, for alienating the tribes and trying to restructure the compacts that have long been in place.

“These were established by other governors,” she says. “They were not up for negotiation. Our governor walked in, as a very self confident businessman, and thought he was going to just work some kind of deal on his own terms, and had absolutely no historical understanding of the partnership, government-to-government that has existed and has caused many of our Oklahoma communities to thrive.”

Yet Stitt’s fight with the tribes was just the first in a string of controversies, some of them tied to his handling of Covid. A state audit found that he mishandled roughly $31 million in Covid relief funds. And in 2020, shortly after the virus reached America’s shores, he spent roughly $1.8 million on personal protective equipment (PPE) that never arrived.

Under Stitt, Oklahoma had some of the most lax pandemic restrictions in the country. He rejected mask and shutdown mandates of any kind. Hofmeister, in contrast, as superintendent of Oklahoma’s public schools, oversaw a temporary shift to virtual learning at the outset of the pandemic.

Stitt has tried to make that a campaign issue, arguing that Hofmeister embraced school closures unnecessarily, which he claims is responsible for Oklahoma’s lagging test scores. “When we shut schools down, this is a byproduct,” he said recently. “We knew this was coming. It’s common sense. And the left was advocating for the closure of schools.”

Read more: How COVID-19 Changed Everything About the 2020 Election

Another divide between the candidates is the future of abortion access in Oklahoma. In May, Stitt signed into law a total abortion ban with no exceptions. It also created a bounty-scheme similar to one first passed in Texas, in which any citizen can be awarded $10,000 if they successfully sue an abortion provider, healthcare worker, or anyone else who asissts a woman in getting the procedure.

Hofmeister has been noncommittal on what kind of bill she would try to pass through the legislature but has said she wants abortions to be available to women under those exceptions.

“I am personally pro-life,” she says. “But I do not favor extremes on either side of this issue. These are healthcare decisions between a woman and her doctor. The governor invited and signed bills into law that show no mercy for victims of rape or incest. And he has criminalized standard health care, and invited miscarriage bounty hunters at $10,000 a fee, where an individual can sue their neighbor and collect a reward. It’s wrong and it needs to be reversed.”

According to Oklahoma political analysts, the race will ultimately turn on who can motivate their supporters. The state has one of the lowest turnout rates in the nation.

Still, in the final week of the race, the test may ultimately come down to whether enough voters are dissatisfied with Stitt that they will pull the lever for someone with a “D” next to their name.

“At this point, it’s a referendum on Kevin Stitt,” Pat McFerron, a longtime Oklahoma GOP consultant, tells TIME. “It’s not really a choice between the two candidates right now.”

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