OKLAHOMA CITY — Most state legislative candidates opposed to school vouchers survived primary campaigns fueled by dark money.
The groups, which spent over $1.5 million on Oklahoma races, are also claiming victory. They said they remain undeterred, and that the victories of candidates they opposed were not a referendum on how most Oklahomans feel about vouchers and school choice expansion.
But one Republican House lawmaker, who was targeted by the groups, said he believes the attacks backfired, and have actually increased opposition among his state House colleagues to the groups’ goals of implementing a broader school voucher program that would shift millions in public taxpayer funds into private school funding.
State campaign ethics reports show that three groups — the School Freedom Fund, the Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund, and People for Opportunity — pumped a combined $1.52 million into various Oklahoma primary races.
Some of these groups have faced allegations that their funders are out-of-state interests that stand to make millions if the state further privatizes K-12 education. The three groups are not legally required to disclose donors, and told CNHI Oklahoma that they do not plan to do so.
Jonathan Small, president and CEO of People for Opportunity, also works for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, think tank. He stressed that involvement by him, Dave Bond and Trent England in People for Opportunity was unrelated to their OCPA duties.
He said OCPA allows its employees to be involved in public policy on their own, in a personal and separate capacity. Small, Bond and England do not serve on OCPA’s oversight board, but serve on People for Opportunity’s board.
People for Opportunity reported spending over $560,000 during the primary election cycle, state Ethic’s Commission disclosures show. Small said the bulk of donations came from Oklahomans. He also said the group has educated Oklahomans about public policy positions and legislators’ votes in over 30 districts.
“I’m puzzled by the notion that someone would say that People for Opportunity was not successful,” Small said. “But to the extent that an incumbent is able to win reelection in a very short (time), both filing deadline cycle and primary date, I don’t think that’s in any way a determinant necessarily about where you can solidly say people are.”
State Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, a member of the House’s leadership team, said the negative campaign tactics did not work as intended.
“It sets back what these people wanted by years because the House, we’re not going to hear any of their stuff, so OCPA and their groups’ (legislation), they’re dead,” he said.
McBride, who was targeted by People for Opportunity and the School Freedom Fund, won reelection, but said OCPA’s leadership had ties to the attacks against him and recruited candidates to challenge incumbent legislators. He said the outcome of the races showed that Oklahomans aren’t “interested in what special interest groups and dark money want.”
And, he said there’s a broader consensus that House lawmakers don’t plan to touch any legislation that “even smells or sounds” like OCPA.
“They are a poison pill, and until they get back to what they originally were — a conservative political think tank instead of an advocacy group… the days of OCPA are gone. Until they change their leadership, they will not be heard at the Capitol,” McBride said.
Small, who serves as OCPA president, said for nearly 30 years the group has heard “these kinds of threats” from politicians.
“OCPA is about principles and policies, not personalities,” Small said. “We’re going to continue to push for reforms that will make Oklahoma a freer and more prosperous state. We know numerous lawmakers share these same goals, and we look forward to working with anyone who wants to advance good public policy for the betterment of all Oklahomans.”
He said OCPA champions a wide array of “transformational reforms,” which also include improving the outcome and performance of public schools through things such as vouchers, education savings accounts, charter schools and tax credit scholarships.
“Those reforms that have a great impact on people’s lives, rarely ever are those passed or advanced in one single year,” Small said. “Transformational reforms tend to take time.”
Erika Wright, founder of the grassroots Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition, said her group compiled a list of candidates’ positions on vouchers ahead of June’s primary. Candidates who opposed them won overwhelmingly, and other candidates, who didn’t have a clear position ahead of the primary, now plan to take a stance ahead of August’s runoff election.
Wright said the outcome of June’s primary should be a good indication that Oklahoma voters don’t want their taxpayer money used to fund vouchers, and she hopes the message sent by voters will translate into significant legislative voucher opposition. She said it’s going to be a long fight, though.
Wright admitted the election outcomes were complicated by many other factors, including all the dark money that flowed into local races. She doesn’t think the strategy of pouring millions into Oklahoma elections worked as intended.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how sitting legislators handle their relationship with groups like OCPA moving forward,” Wright said.
“My guess would be that the powers that be in the Legislature are really, really not happy about this,” Wright said. “I think it’ll be interesting to see how their bullying tactics (worked). I think it might actually be backfiring on them. I think there’s going to be a lot of people up there in the Legislature that are just done dealing with these people.”
Jennifer Carter, the Oklahoma senior adviser for the Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund, a group that spent around $225,000 on Oklahoma political races, said the primary elections sent “a strong message that Republicans support education freedom for all families.”
In an email, Carter said that in the statewide races, Gov. Kevin Stitt easily prevailed after championing school choice, while his secretary of education, Ryan Walters, received the most votes in the race for state superintendent of public instruction. Walters, though, is headed into an August runoff against fellow Republican April Grace.
Carter also said in legislative races two “school choice supporters” beat “anti-school choice incumbents” while state Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon, who serves as House education chair, “very narrowly survived her challenge.”
“In open seats, school choice supporters prevailed in many races,” Carter said. “Anyone who thinks that education freedom isn’t popular with Oklahoma Republicans is whistling past the political graveyard.”
Baker, whose reelection effort was targeted by all three groups, did not respond to a message left seeking comment.
A spokesman for the Club for Growth, which responded to questions about the School Freedom Fund, said in an email that the group is focused on “electing proponents of school choice and defeating opponents of the issue.”
The group, which reported over $726,000 in expenditures, said it does not discuss its donors.
State Rep. Anthony Moore, R-Clinton, who survived a bruising campaign, said the outcome showed that the people in western Oklahoma, particularly in rural parts, don’t respond well to negative campaigning.
“I think that they saw through the lies that were being told by the outside groups and really focused on what mattered close to heart here,” Moore said.
Moore said he believes he was targeted by the groups because he opposed vouchers, but he said he expects his victory will do little to change the conversation around the issue moving forward.
“I think that that’s still going to be a topic moving forward,” Moore said. “But I think that it’s not something that’s overly popular in western Oklahoma right now.”