Tensions were high in Oklahoma as the night began. As results poured in, it became apparent that Stephanie Bice had pulled off a stunner. With a resounding performance in Oklahoma County, especially in her own State Senate district, she was able to overcome solid margins from Terry Nesse in Pottawatomie and Seminole Counties. By the end of the night, Bice had won the OK-05 primary with nearly 53% – a margin of just over 3,000 votes. But how did she do it?
A Disappointing Primary
While Stephanie Bice entered the race as the favorite, with support from prominent national Republicans like Elise Stefanik, the initial results in the June 30th primary weren’t extremely compelling. Businesswoman Terry Neese finished in first with 36.5% of the vote while Bice ranked second with 25.4%.
Because no candidate won a majority of the vote, the race went to a top-two runoff. While Bice was able to secure a spot, finishing over 10 points behind the first-place finisher isn’t the ideal result. Neese received an additional boost in early August when she received the official endorsement from the conservative Club for Growth PAC. The group attacked Bice as a “liberal Republican” and focused on her support for a tax increase that was used to increase teacher pay.
On top of the spending from Neese herself, Club for Growth planned a $500,000 ad blitz against Bice. By the final week of the primary runoff, both candidates had burned through over a million dollars in spending. This left them each with only around $80,000 in cash on hand. Although Stephanie Bice had an overall fundraising edge, Terry Neese was able to self-fund much of her campaign. Additional support came from Club for Growth, which spent over $900,000 in the race. In comparison, support for Bice came from smaller groups like American Jobs & Growth PAC and Will Hurd’s Future Leaders Fund.
A Heated Debate
Sources within the Bice campaign cited the August 18 debate as a key moment in the campaign. A contentious affair that saw both candidates hit hard on the issues, Neese was hit particularly hard by allegations from 2005.
The George W. Bush administration nominated Neese to head the United States Mint but demanded she withdraw after they uncovered damaging training tapes from her company, a staffing agency based in Oklahoma City. These tapes seemingly showed her asking employees to lie to and manipulate clients. These tapes were publicly leaked shortly before the debate. Neese denied that she was the one in the recordings and claimed Bice was who released the tapes.
That was but the first in a string of scandals that Neese dealt with in the final weeks. Another story revolved around a nonprofit that Neese had founded, the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women. Tax records indicated that Nesse funneled the majority of revenue back to herself and her business.
A final hit came when it was reported that Neese, contrary to public claims, lacked any heritage in the Cherokee Nation. Neese had previously served on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education. Each of the 15 members of the panel are required to be Native American.
These stories might have had an impact. While Terry Neese won the early vote by four votes, Stephanie Bice won the Election Day vote by over 3,000 votes. Another reason for Bice’s success was her strong performance in the areas comprising her State Senate district, based in the northern portions of Oklahoma County. While Neese won majorities in rural Pottawatomie and Seminole Counties, the vast majority of the district’s population is based in Oklahoma County. Bice won there with over 54% of the vote.
By the end of the night, a clearly shocked Neese had conceded and pledged to support Bice in the general.
The Road Ahead
Stephanie Bice now faces the major challenge: incumbent Democrat Kendra Horn, elected in 2018’s blue wave. This district voted for Trump by 13 percentage points in 2016. It’s expected to vote for him again, albeit by a reduced margin.
As Kraz Greinetz explained back in May, Horn actually ran well behind Democratic gubernatorial nominee Drew Edmonson. While Edmonson carried the seat by over ten points, Horn only carried it by around two. This places her in an uncomfortable position of potentially having to rely on the top of the ticket. If Trump wins the seat, she’ll need to win over some Trump voters in order to carry it.
Polling has been scarce for the general election in Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district. An internal poll from the DCCC in early August gave Horn a five-point lead over Bice and Biden a narrow one-point lead for President Trump in the seat.
Elections Daily rates this race as a Tossup as of our most recent update. The presence of Stephanie Bice on the ticket almost certainly helps Republican chances, and she is a much more viable candidate than Neese. With improved fundraising, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if she pulls off another win in November.