But Tuesday’s primary runoff in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District, which shocked political observers when Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn flipped it from red to blue in 2018, is a test of two GOP primary campaign strategies that could shape how competitive the race will be in November.
Businesswoman Terry Neese finished ahead of state Sen. Stephanie Bice in the June nine-way primary, but since neither of them received a majority of the vote, the contest advanced to a late summer runoff.
Both women initially worked for or supported Carly Fiorina in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, but as has been the case in most GOP contests since then, loyalty to President Donald Trump is a big part of the race.
Neese, who has been around Oklahoma politics for a long time and started her own personnel agency, was co-chairwoman of Trump’s small business advisory council and is fully embracing him. Bice, a younger state legislator elected in 2014, has a slightly more moderate profile and although supportive of the President, has been more measured in her praise of his response to the coronavirus pandemic, including in a recent debate.
Neese’s ads, in which she often wears a red Trump hat, are filled with images of protesters and rioters and ominous threats about socialism. “She’s ready to take on Kendra Horn, Nancy Pelosi, because Terry Neese is Oklahoma tough,” the narrator says in her closing spot.
Much of Bice’s closing messaging — although touting her support for Trump and her endorsement from the National Rifle Association — is about who can win the general election. “Neese won’t take on the Squad, because she can’t beat Kendra Horn,” Bice says in a recent ad called “New Generation” that attacks Neese for “mastering the art of dirty politics, but never beating a single Democrat” over three decades in politics.
The contrast between the two candidates’ messages highlights different perspectives on how to reclaim this district, which Trump carried by more than 13 points in 2016.
“It is an extraordinarily strong Trump district, conservative district. This is not one of the suburban areas where Republicans have lost females,” Neese’s campaign consultant Matt Langston said Sunday. “She reflects the seat.”
But Bice’s team sees it differently. “This is not a Freedom Caucus district. … The idea that this is some kind of slam dunk is crazy,” said Cam Savage, Bice’s consultant, referring to the competitiveness of the seat in November. “It takes a certain kind of person to win this district,” Savage added, noting that Bice’s willingness to talk about teachers and education, “which aren’t always natural fits for Republicans,” resonates with suburban women.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the district a toss-up.
Guns, taxes and leaked tapes
While Horn has had the advantage of campaigning this summer without an opponent, Neese and Bice have been hitting each other in advertising and on the debate stage.
Guns have been a frequent motif in their messaging. Neese’s ads include a close-up shot of her hand pulling a gun out of a car glove compartment. Bice’s ads show her firing a gun, while attacking Neese’s business for not allowing firearms on the premises. Neese’s campaign said that does not reflect the staffing agency’s policy when Neese ran it.
Neese has locked up a key Republican ally — the conservative Club for Growth, whose political arm has spent about a million dollars on the race. Bice has the backing of former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who rebranded her leadership PAC this cycle to support women in primaries. But neither of those endorsements comes with the kind of outside help to match the Club’s.
One recent spot from the Club, featuring a dancing man wearing a unicorn mask, calls Bice “strangely liberal” and knocks her for “voting for the biggest tax increase in state history,” with the narrator saying, “That’s just weird.”
Bice has taken to the air defending her vote for a tax package that gave teachers a pay increase, saying, “We were shortchanging them — and our students.”
In the run-up to the June primary, after the Club had tried to tie her to Harvey Weinstein because she voted to expand a tax incentive for the film industry to come to Oklahoma, Bice blamed “sexism in attacks from groups like this” from keeping GOP women out of Congress. Bice’s runoff messaging has continued to highlight the “Never Trump DC Swamp Lobbyists” attacking her, an allusion to the Club, which now backs the President but initially opposed him in the 2016 presidential primary.
Despite the spending advantage conferred by the Club in the primary, Neese has been confronted with a series of negative headlines in the final stretch of the race.
Hours before the two candidates debated last week, audiotapes were anonymously sent to news outlets on which a voice — allegedly Neese’s — tells her employees to lie to clients. Neese has said the tapes are “doctored” and accused Bice of leaking them. Bice denies the charge but has used them to argue Neese can’t beat Horn.
“It’s pretty damning, and this is the type of stuff the Democrats will use against us in November,” Bice said in last week’s debate, according to News 9, a local CBS affiliate.
The tapes have fueled another line of controversy about Neese’s withdrawal from the nomination to lead the US Mint under former President George W. Bush. The Bush White House asked her to withdraw after hearing the tapes, according to the local nonprofit news site The Frontier, which cites anonymous sources who worked for the White House and the Senate Banking Committee. Neese maintains she withdrew of her own volition for family reasons.
One of the latest News 9 stories, based on IRS tax records, is about her family business profiting from a nonprofit Neese founded. Her campaign argues that her business actually lost money overall on leasing space and employees to the nonprofit, and Neese has said that the organization’s board — on which she does not have a vote — made the decisions.
It’s not clear that negative coverage of Neese published just a few days before the runoff will do much to counteract weeks of TV advertising bashing her opponent.
But whoever wins here on Tuesday, there’ll be outside Republican help for the nominee. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC affiliated with House GOP leadership, is already on the air with an ad comparing Horn to “cheesy lip balm” and “blue ketchup.”
The Democratic incumbent, however, will have outside air cover of her own, and she starts with a strong cash advantage. She had $2.6 million in the bank at the end of June, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Bice had just $80,0000 as of August 5, the end of the pre-runoff reporting period, and had raised about $1.5 million over the course of the campaign. Neese ended the same period with a comparable $81,000 in the bank after raising $786,000 and loaning her campaign close to half a million dollars.