Dark money group targets Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt with Fox News ads
A dark money group is spending about $160,000 to air cable television commercials in Oklahoma City and Tulsa that paint Gov. Kevin Stitt as soft on crime.
Conservative Voice of America, a newly formed group that offers few public details about itself and no information about its funders, recently purchased three weeks of airtime to run anti-Stitt ads on the Fox News Channel.
By running commercials on the reliably conservative news network, the group appears to be trying to influence Stitt's Republican base.
The total cable ad buy, a first for Conservative Voice of America, amounted to just under $183,000, but the majority of the airtime was purchased in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa TV markets.
Stitt's campaign manager, Donelle Harder, dismissed the idea that conservatives are behind the attack ads.
"We don't know the true intentions of funders of this dark money group run by Washington, D.C., lobbyists, but we know one thing, they aren't conservatives," she said.
About the anti-Kevin Stitt advertisements
The 30-second TV ad criticizes Stitt for Oklahoma's 2019 mass commutation, in which more than 450 people convicted of simple drug possession or property crimes were released from prison in what is believed to be the largest single-day mass commutation in U.S. history.
The mass commutation came after Stitt signed bipartisan legislation to make State Question 780 retroactive.
Although the commercial frames the mass commutation as the largest release of felons in U.S. history, voter-approved SQ 780 reclassified simple drug possession and low-level property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies.
Stitt has touted the 2019 commutation that garnered the traditionally "tough on crime state" national attention.
In an interview following the commutation, Stitt said public safety and the rule of law are still paramount in Oklahoma. He also told PBS NewsHour that no violent offenders were released through the mass commutation.
"We always think about public safety, but these were folks that we were just mad at, we weren't really afraid of them," Stitt said. "I think those folks had served their time, and it was time to give them a second chance."
On the campaign trail, Stitt vowed to lower the state's prison population and reduce the state's incarceration rate, which was the worst in the nation at the time.
After the mass commutation, Oklahoma reportedly dropped to the second-worst incarceration rate, behind Louisiana. As of October, the state ranked the third-worst for incarceration.
The commercial also mentions that Stitt commuted the sentence of convicted cocaine dealer Lawrence Paul Anderson.
He is accused of fatally stabbing his uncle, a 4-year-old girl and a neighbor in Chickasha in February following his early release. Anderson, who was visiting his aunt and uncle after getting out of prison, also is accused of stabbing his aunt, who survived.
Anderson said he cut out his first victim's heart. He then cooked the organ and tried to make his aunt and uncle eat it before he attacked them, according to documents filed in the case.
After the incident, Stitt requested the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation determine whether any wrongdoing at the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board led to Anderson and a second inmate being released from prison by mistake.
Stitt spokesman Charlie Hannema on Wednesday said the investigation is complete and the governor's office received a report, which he said he could not share publicly.
"State law expressly prohibits disclosure of OSBI investigations and related reports so I am unable to comment further," Hannema said.
The Pardon and Parole Board initially rejected Anderson's commutation request. Anderson, however, later reapplied for commutation, which was then recommended by the Pardon and Parole Board and approved by Stitt.
The commercial from Conservative Voice of America started running shortly after Stitt granted clemency to high-profile death row inmate Julius Jones, who will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The commercial urges Oklahomans to tell Stitt "enough is enough."
"Oklahomans deserve a governor who cracks down on violent criminals, not one who lets them go," the voiceover says.
Thousands more spent on digital ads attacking Gov. Kevin Stitt
Since August, the group also has spent upwards of $60,000 in Facebook ads that try to portray Stitt as weak on crime.
One digital ad compares Stitt to former President Donald Trump, saying the former commander in chief is tough on crime while the governor is not.
Another that was published before Stitt made a decision on Jones' clemency accused Stitt of ignoring Oklahoma crime victims in favor of appeasing the "woke mob."
"Gov. Stitt and his appointees to the Pardon and Parole Board are siding with Hollywood liberals like Kim Kardashian and the 'woke' mob while ignoring prosecutors and families," the advertisement says. Kardashian West was one of a handful of celebrities urging Stitt to grant Jones clemency.
Stitt is the state's most popular elected official and he is delivering on his promise to turn Oklahoma around by leading with strong conservative values and reforms, said Harder, the governor's campaign manager.
"Just look at the evidence — under Stitt's leadership, Oklahoma has achieved the lowest unemployment rate in state history, the largest savings account in state history and record high investments in education all while cutting taxes for every single Oklahoman," Harder said.
Who is paying for the attack ads against Kevin Stitt?
Conservative Voice of America is a social welfare organization, also known as a 501(c)(4). Unlike political action committees, these groups do not have to reveal their donors, which allows unknown individuals to try and influence elections.
Such entities, referred to as dark money groups when they get involved in politics, are prohibited from coordinating with a candidate's campaign.
The group describes itself as fighting for "principled, conservative leadership in Washington and our state capitals who are unwavering in their commitment to conservatism and good stewardship of our government."
The organization's president is Mike Cys, who has a wealth of public affairs and government relations experience, having previously worked at the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Retail Federation and Corporation for National and Community Service, the government group that runs volunteer programs like AmeriCorps.
Neither Cys nor anyone else from Conservative Voice of America returned phone calls and an email from The Oklahoman seeking more information about the group and its funders.
Cys also previously served as the president of Protecting America Now, a dark money group that supported the confirmation of Scott Pruitt, of Oklahoma, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Politico.
According to Cys' LinkedIn page, he also has worked with Trey Richardson, the managing partner of Sagac Public Affairs, and GR Pro, who has served as the administrator of several dark money groups seeking to influence Oklahoma elections.
In the 2018 governor's race, Richardson and his wife were directors of a dark money group that spent nearly half a million dollars to support former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett's gubernatorial bid.
Cornett lost to Stitt in the Republican runoff primary. After the runoff, the group immediately pivoted to attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson.
With Stitt up for reelection next year and a competitive election ahead of him, these commercials are likely just the start of attack ads in the gubernatorial race.
Stitt also is facing public opposition from a political action committee called The Oklahoma Project that formed last year. The group has targeted Stitt on social media and through digital ads that predominantly criticize the governor's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In January, the group made a $7,000 independent expenditure for the production of anti-Stitt ads. The group has reported spending thousands more on digital advertising, although it's unclear if it has all gone to targeting Stitt.