When voters booted a dozen Oklahoma Republican legislators from office in the primary, the common thinking was that educators angry about classroom funding were behind the ousters.
But there were forces at work beyond just agitated teachers.
A top GOP House leader actively participated in a plan to take down several hardline members of his own caucus, a move that went far beyond what former President Ronald Reagan once called the 11th Commandment: never to speak ill of a fellow Republican.
Meanwhile, a dark-money federal super PAC based in Alexandria, Virginia, spent nearly $750,000 launching a parallel attack against several of the same Republicans. The Conservative Alliance PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money without disclosing its individual donors, targeted several House Republicans with mailers, radio ads and other attack ads.
“They’ve gotten rid of us troublemakers who were holding the Republican principle line,” said Rep. George Faught, a 10-year Muskogee Republican targeted with a mailer that featured him with a long Pinocchio nose.
Conservative Alliance PAC also targeted Republican state legislators in primary elections in Ohio, where the PAC is being sued for defamation for some of its attacks.
In Oklahoma, Republicans have been steamrolling Democrats in elections for a decade, racking up super majorities in both legislative chambers and laying claim to the entire congressional delegation and every statewide elected office.
As a result, much of the state’s political wrangling takes place within the GOP, evident earlier this year when hardline conservatives like Faught in the state House thwarted GOP leadership’s plan for tax hikes to help fund teacher pay increases.
With a teacher walkout looming, Republican House leaders were forced to broker a compromise with Democrats to get the necessary votes, further exacerbating the rift within the GOP. Several anti-tax conservatives even joined an effort to roll back the tax hike that ultimately fell short.
But the last straw came when some of the Republican hardliners called publicly for more conservative challengers to run for office, said Rep. Chris Kannady, a House floor leader and chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee who acknowledged helping launch the attack on his own colleagues.
“All I did was have conversations with people and set things in motion to say that, this situation has to be addressed. We cannot let members of our own caucus actively be against the rest of us because we disagree on policy decisions,” said Kannady, R-Oklahoma City.
“Sometimes you have to take leadership whenever it might be uncomfortable to do so, especially once we were provoked, and start having conversations with stakeholders in the community.”
Kannady declined to name individuals with whom he met but said there was a broad coalition interested in taking out the caucus’ more conservative members, a group that referred to itself as the “Platform Caucus.”
“You can name any sector in the community, and I can tell you every one was frustrated,” Kannady said. “That’s indicative of the amount of money that was infused into the process.”
Kannady said he acted separately from House leaders and did not discuss his plans with his fellow colleagues. He also said he did not know who was behind the Conservative Alliance PAC or who its donors were.
Campaign finance records show Kannady gave $500 to Tulsa Republican Jeff Boatman, who was running against state Rep. Scott McEachin, and $2,000 to Stan May, a Broken Arrow Republican running against Rep. Mike Ritze.
Both Ritze and McEachin were defeated, along with six other GOP incumbents who had voted against leadership’s plan to raise taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel and oil and gas production to help pay for a pay raise for teachers.
Ritze, a five-term incumbent best known for his anti-immigration rhetoric and personally financing a Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol, was among those targeted by Conservative Alliance PAC.
In one of the mailers, state Rep. Josh West, an Army combat veteran, accused Ritze, a fellow GOP colleague, of wearing military medals he did not earn.
West, a Grove Republican, said he was approached by someone working with the PAC and agreed to let them use his picture in the mailer.
“It was no secret that I was unhappy with Ritze and the way he carried himself,” West said. “I had no issue allowing them to use my picture.”
West also said he doesn’t know who is behind the Conservative Alliance PAC or how it is funded.
West and Kannady both use the same Oklahoma-based consultant, Campaign Advocacy Management Professionals, LLC, that was used by the super PAC to produce mailers and other campaign attacks on GOP incumbents.
Fount Holland, a longtime GOP political consultant in Oklahoma, acknowledged he did some work on mailers for the super PAC, but downplayed the suggestion that House leadership was behind the effort.
“The only thing I can say is that I worked against two incumbents for an organization,” Holland said, “and I was happy to do it.”
Holland’s former partner, Republican consultant Trebor Worthen whose clients include House Speaker Charles McCall, also acknowledged doing some campaign work for the super PAC against GOP incumbents. But Worthen said he didn’t know who was behind the attacks.
“Look, the way the campaign finance rules are, we may never know that,” Worthen said bluntly.
Worthen said the hardliners who were targeted in GOP primaries made a lot of enemies by opposing efforts by business and political leaders to pass the tax hike to help fund teacher raises.
“There’s widespread dissatisfaction with that element of the Legislature,” Worthen said. “My guess is it was a whole bunch of people from the more mainstream, pro-business type of element that said: ‘We need to get together and get rid of some of these people.’”