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Attack ad intended for conservatives to see misrepresents commutations to claim Stitt is soft on crime

 The dark money group Conservative Voice of America is running ads targeting Gov. Kevin Stitt on Fox News in Oklahoma markets.
The dark money group Conservative Voice of America is running ads targeting Gov. Kevin Stitt on Fox News in Oklahoma markets.

An attack ad airing on Fox News in Oklahoma markets targets Gov. Kevin Stitt and paints him as soft on crime.

"Gov. Stitt's catch and release policies led to the largest mass release of felons in U.S. history. One felon released by Gov. Stitt was Lawrence Anderson," the ad begins. "Anderson brutally murdered his neighbor and then tried to feed her organs to his family. When his family refused, Anderson killed them, too."

Stitt commuted the sentences of more than 450 people in November 2019. Voters in 2016 reduced low-level drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and Stitt signed legislation in 2019 making the changes retroactive.

The governor signed Lawrence Anderson’s commutation in 2020. It was apparently recommended by the state pardon and parole board by mistake. Stitt asked the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to review the board's actions for potential wrongdoing.

Conservative Voice of America spent almost $200,000 to run the ads for a few weeks. The group also spent thousands of dollars on digital ads on Facebook tying Stitt to "Hollywood liberals" and the "woke mob" because of the pardon and parole board's recommendation to commute Julius Jones' death sentence.

Little information is available about the group. Calls to their Washington, D.C., area number have not been returned.

"We don’t know the true intentions or funders of this dark money group run by Washington, D.C., lobbyists, but we know one thing, that they aren’t conservatives," Stitt's campaign manager, Donelle Harder, said in a statement.

The man named as Conservative Voice of America's president, Mike Cys, is a longtime lobbyist and Republican political staffer. He has documented connections to conservative candidates, including former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt during his confirmation to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Stitt is not be the first elected Republican in Oklahoma to face pressure from his right in this election cycle.

U.S. Senate candidate Jackson Lahmeyer constantly calls Sen. James Lankford a RINO — Republican in name only. Lahmeyer has closely aligned himself with Trump allies and criticizes Lankford for not promoting conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and COVID-19. State GOP Chair John Bennett has joined Lahmeyer in attacking Republicans they perceive as not conservative enough.

OSU political science professor Matt Motta said the strategy works because primaries draw more extreme voters.

"The composition of the primary electorate is just fundamentally different from the composition of the general electorate, and that creates this ideological space for more extreme challengers to try to mount a challenge to someone who's even as reliably conservative as Stitt," Motta said.

The strategy is used in Republican and Democratic elections, and its impact isn't limited to giving more conservative or more progressive challengers a real chance.

"We tend to see incumbents move further to the right or further to the left, depending on which side of the partisan aisle they're on, for that primary electorate," Motta said.

Note: This story originally stated no registered Republicans were running against Stitt at the time of publication. In fact, Republican candidates Mark Sherwood and Moira McCabe had announced campaigns.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.