Big GOP Primary Spending to Face 2018’s Most Surprising Winner

The crowded Republican race to take on the biggest surprise of the 2018 midterms is coming down in the final week to a few top contenders highlighting their distinct backgrounds and support for the president.

The winner of the June 30 primary will face one of the most vulnerable House Democrats, Rep. Kendra Horn, in a district President Donald Trump carried by 13 points.

State Sen. Stephanie Bice, former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi and businesswoman Terry Neese have outraised the other six candidates, and they’ve aired ads touting stances on building a border wall and brandishing their support for Trump. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, which analysts say is likely, the top two finishers will compete in an Aug. 20 runoff.

Oklahoma-based Republican consultant Trebor Worthen said no candidate has a decisive advantage.

“It’s virtually anyone’s race at this point in the GOP primary,” he said.

Republicans flocked to the race after Horn broke the GOP’s four-decade streak of representing the Oklahoma City area in Congress by unseating Steve Russell 51%-49%.

Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Republicans will face off Tuesday to take on freshman Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.).

Bice, Barresi, and Neese are the front-runners because they have more “connections and accomplishments” than the rest of the field, which are the only ways to differentiate candidates when they all line up on Republican issues, said Tyler Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma.

David Hill, an auto parts manufacturer CEO, also raised more than $500,000 and, like Bice and Neese, was included in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program for promising candidates.

Bice is the only elected official. Her state Senate seat encompasses the northwest section of the 5th District. She raised $210,000 between April 1 and June 10 and ended the pre-primary period with $229,000 in cash on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission. As of Tuesday, Bice had spent $339,000 on advertising, according to Advertising Analytics.

Bice said in an interview that no other candidate can match her experience in the state legislature, where she has pushed legislation to spur economic development. Bice added that she wants to bring back Republican control of the district to find conservative solutions to issues such as job growth and healthcare.

“This is still a Republican district,” Bice said. “With the President up on the ballot and the positive voter registration, I think it will be a difficult battle for Congresswoman Horn.”

But Bice was the target of a late ad from the Club for Growth Action, which criticized her on taxes and mentioned disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. She responded with a spot of her own that left no question whom she stands with on policy: Trump.

Screenshot of a TV ad aired by state Sen. Stephanie Bice (R).

Neese and Barresi have self-funded much of their campaigns. Neese spent more than any other candidate on ads: $416,000. She had $353,000 on hand as of June 10 after previously giving her campaign $450,000 to her campaign out of pocket. Barresi spent $239,000 on ads, had $212,000 on hand, and previously gave her campaign $500,000.

While Barresi has name recognition from her unsuccessful state-wide bid for superintendent in 2014, the former dentist is also a “controversial figure” from her time in the education department, Worthen said. She was criticized for implementing what some said was an unreliable school evaluation system and a required reading proficiency tests for third graders.

Johnson said Neese has been the most successful in her advertising, with her clear positioning as the businesswoman, die-hard Trump supporter, and defender of bread-and-butter Republican issues. One ad features pictures of Neese with Trump and his son, Don Jr., and she also takes a gun out of a glove box with a Make America Great Again hat in the frame.

“Neese hits you right in the face with the Trump connection and the gun issue,” Johnson said. “The visuals tell you where she fits within the party and what she cares about.”

On to November

The district has already seen outside spending on the airwaves from both sides, and it is sure to be a major target in the fall.

All of the top Republican contenders have hammered Horn on her voting record, with ads tying Horn to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Horn has time, though, to highlight her moderate record, Johnson said. Horn also has about $2 million on hand and hasn’t had to battle in a competitive primary.

“She can stake herself out in the middle as much as possible and draw pretty clear contrasts with any of these candidates,” Johnson said, “as long as they sort of continue to try to out-Trump each other.”

Worthen said any Republican who wins the nomination will have a chance to beat Horn, though it’s “not a given.” He said Barresi might alienate some suburban voters who have an “intense dislike” for the policies she implemented while in the education department.

Aaron Wilder, a Democratic consultant, said the Republican voters who turn out in greater numbers in a presidential election year may lead to a “razor thin” margin in November. He said Oklahoma City has grown younger and more diverse over the years, creating more chances to uncover Democratic votes in the historically deep red district.

“If the idea is that Horn will lose and this is the most flippable seat in the House, then I think we will have another surprising night like we did in 2018,” Wilder said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Samantha Handler in Washington at shandler@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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