OKLAHOMA CITY — Joy Hofmeister’s defection from lifelong Republican to sudden Democrat as she announced a bid for governor sent shockwaves through Oklahoma politics Thursday.
Hofmeister, 57, who currently serves as state superintendent, said she classified herself as a moderate Republican prior to changing her party affiliation Thursday to Democrat. Now she classifies herself as someone who is both independent and moderate Democrat.
“Unfortunately, (Gov.) Kevin Stitt has hijacked the Republican Party here in Oklahoma,” Hofmeister said. “And it’s important to say, first and foremost, I haven’t changed. I’m the same person. I have the same values and the same positions.”
Hofmeister said her priorities include supporting education and improving health care and rural infrastructure.
She said she chose not to face Stitt in the Republican primary because Oklahoma is made up of a lot of different communities. She said she is best positioned to represent all Oklahomans as a Democrat.
“I am confident that there are so many Oklahomans who are tired of extremism, and like me, they are fed up with partisanship and ineffective leadership,” Hofmeister said. “And, I am going to continue to support what represents Oklahoma values. And that is hard work, common sense, working together and courage to do the right thing regardless of party.”
In normal times, switching from Republican to Democrat would be “political suicide” in Oklahoma, but now it would be difficult for a moderate Republican to win a party primary, said Christine Pappas, chair of the Department of Politics, Law and Society at East Central University.
If she faced incumbent Gov. Kevin Stitt in a closed Republican primary, Hofmeister stood no chance of winning. But as a Democrat, she’ll likely win that party’s primary and stand a chance of beating Stitt in the general election next year if she can engage with moderate and independent voters, Pappas said.
Pappas said there’s currently no room for moderates in the state GOP because of the mobilized voters who have been driven rightward by the “Trump revolution,” which rewards candidates more who are farthest right.
“At this moment, I think there are probably some Republicans who feel like their party left them as it moved rightward, but candidates are not going to win because the really strong voters right now are really far right,” she said.
But Pappas said there are risks for Republicans like Hofmeister who suddenly jump to the Democratic ticket.
Hofmeister, who has largely stayed out of the political fray during her two terms as state superintendent, might be one of the few politicians who would be welcomed, she said.
“With Hofmeister, we’ve seen a politician who has really embodied a lot of policies through her work with the schools that Democrats support, so I think she might be one of the few who could do that because most of the time people go, ‘No, we don’t trust this newbie to the Democratic Party,’” Pappas said.
“I’ll be watching with great interest to see if Superintendent Hofmeister is going to represent not just our party, but our values as well,” said state Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa.
He said while the Oklahoma Democratic Party has always been “a big tent party,” Hofmeister potentially faces an “uphill battle” because she hasn’t been outspoken about Democratic issues such as Medicaid expansion and critical race theory.
In addition, he said Hofmeister will face off against one of the most progressive voices in the party — Connie Johnson — so it’ll be interesting to see what happens.
Johnson said in a tweet Thursday: “We invite her (Hofmeister) and everyone in Democratic Party leadership to join us in committing now to support whoever wins the Democratic primary in an all-out effort to get rid of Gov. Stitt.’
Nichols said if Hofmeister’s shift is about values, then she’ll find a lot of support in the party, but if it’s just about “political calculation,” then she’s going to find it difficult to gain support.
“I really hope it’s about this idea that there’s a Republican Party right now that has been so radicalized that it’s essentially taking a lot of folks who don’t identify with them any more,” Nichols said.
He said the state GOP has elected a party leader from the far right” — John Bennett — while Stitt has become “more and more radical by the day.” The state Legislature also reflects that shift, as well, Nichols said.
“I’m not exactly sure what a moderate looks like anymore, but I can tell you that they really don’t have a place of power right now in Oklahoma,” Nichols said.
Donelle Harder, Stitt’s campaign manager, said Stitt is Oklahoma’s most popular elected official because he continues to demonstrate that he is a political outsider.
She said since Stitt took office, 100,000 more Oklahomans have registered as Republicans and 80,000 left the Democratic Party. She said whether it’s Stitt’s record of advocating for and signing into law the nation’s largest commutation for Oklahoma prisoners in more than 100 years or funding public education at historic levels, Oklahomans support him because he’s delivering results and staying true to campaign commitments.
“Above all else, Oklahomans want someone focused on the next generation and not the next election, and that’s the common-sense leadership Stitt brings to the governor’s Office,” Harder said.
State Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, said when he changed parties several years ago, he was embraced. Fugate, who now considers himself a moderate Democrat, had been a lifelong Republican.
He said he wishes there were a place in the Republican Party for moderates like him, but with the way party dynamics work, moderates are facing — and losing — primary challenges.
“To me we invest far too much in party, and we want to just wrap ourselves in party to the point that we forget about what’s correct,” he said. “And sometimes good ideas can come from any place. They’re not party specific. So yeah, I fully embrace her switching parties.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.