John Bennett

Shown is John Bennett, center, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party.

Editor’s note: The following story uses anonymous sources with direct knowledge of the state Republican Party’s dynamics and conversations. The Transcript has granted anonymity to these sources given the sensitivity of the information they shared, but knows the identity of and has vetted each source.

NORMAN — The Official Oklahoma Republican Party was once a powerhouse in the state, but a lack of leadership over the years has led the party down a path of disarray, division and the alienation of donors, Republican officials say.

The internal strife within the Oklahoma GOP hit a near-breaking point on Friday, when the party’s official Facebook page shared an anti-Semitic post comparing the treatment of unvaccinated Americans to that of Jews during the Holocaust.

The post pushed many prominent Republicans — including State House Majority Leader Rep. Josh West, State Sen. Greg McCourtney, R-Ada, and Rep. Anthony Moore, R-Elk City — to publicly state that Republicans should demand better of the current state party chairman John Bennett.

“The State Committee of the [OK GOP] can remove a Chairperson and elect a new Chairperson,” Former Oklahoma GOP Chair Chad Alexander tweeted Friday. “Do your jobs. Equating mad genocide of millions of people to a vaccine is ridiculous. If we don’t clean our own house the loyal minority will.”

But internally, some in the state party — including Bennett — don’t believe the Oklahoma GOP has done anything wrong, multiple sources said. Bennett did not respond to The Transcript’s request for comment for this story.

“There’s a couple of very fringe coalitions that are very aggressive on social media, that I would argue their bark is much larger than their bite,” a person familiar with the matter said. “They are kind of jumping into a lot of this, and it just so happens that the state party chair agrees with him a lot. He has partnered with him on a lot of things that I don’t know that he knows what he’s partnered on, per se. But for whatever reason, they believe that they are the majority of the 1.2 million Republicans that exist in the state, and they’re not.”

Despite widespread condemnation of the anti-Semitic post, the Oklahoma GOP doubled down late Friday night and began fundraising off of their comparison of treatment of the unvaccinated to the genocide of six million Jews. The move led to even more conflict, a source with knowledge of internal conversations told The Transcript.

According to the source, when a member of Bennett’s executive team was confronted about the post, they became confused about why people were offended. Multiple members of the Oklahoma GOP State Committee told The Transcript that Bennett and his inner circle see nothing wrong with the post and are hoping to raise money off of the publicity it brought.

“They are totally doubling down on this,” a second source with knowledge of internal party conversations told The Transcript. “They want the publicity and think it will turn into dollars. Completely tone deaf, but the inner circle won’t listen to anyone. I’ve personally had multiple donors tell me they are done giving until a leadership change takes place.”

Friday’s antics are not a new development. Since his April election to head the state’s biggest party, Bennett has done more to divide the Oklahoma GOP than unify it, Republican officials said, leaving many members of the state GOP leadership unhappy with Bennett.

“I think party leadership as a whole is very concerned about the direction of the state party in many aspects,” the person familiar with the matter told The Transcript. “The issues we have in the state party right now is not something that happened overnight — it’s been several years of poor leadership and poor organization and poor focus of direction that got us to where we are today.”

From backing the primary challenger to an incumbent Republican senator, to trying to censure Senators Jim Inhofe and James Lankford for voting to certify election results, Bennett has angered many Republicans already this year, but sources said the anti-Semitic rhetoric used by the party on Facebook was the breaking point for many.

The person familiar with the matter said they can see Bennett potentially being ousted from his position as state party chair.

“I think really within the last several years we’ve seen a lack of leadership and a lack of administrative vision on what the state party should actually look like in Oklahoma, and it’s led us to where we are today with Bennett,” they said.

According to the FEC reports, the state party has been losing donors at a significant rate since April, and two members of the state committee believe this will continue until leadership changes start taking place, beginning with Bennett.

Losing donors is not something the party can afford at this point.

Money problems

Money never used to be an issue for the state Republican party.

The party’s PAC, Oklahoma Leadership Council, ended 2020 with $93,653 and swept all six Congressional races, even flipping Congressional District 5 in a tight race.

At the beginning of 2021, that trend continued. Going into March, the party had $72,900 on hand, but by the end of the month, the state GOP had just over $13,000. Now, just four months later, the party has less than $1,000 in the bank.

According to its latest FEC report, the party’s PAC only has $810 on hand. The party also received only $8,727 in contributions in the month of June.

In comparison, FEC filings show that the Oklahoma Democratic Party raised $48,941 in the month of June, and has $14,144 on hand.

“In Oklahoma, quite frankly, we should never get outraised by the Democrats,” said Alexander, who ran the party from 2001 to 2003. “That means they’re more organized, they’re communicating, they’re not divided and they’re working together doing what they can to try to fight in a red state. Meanwhile, our state chairman’s attacking our own elected officials.”

The fundraising issue isn’t a sign that Oklahoma is shifting toward becoming a blue state — individual Republican candidates in the state are having no problem raising money, and are significantly outraising the party itself.

In the last reporting period, Lankford raised $785,109; his challenger Jackson Lahmeyer raised $211,706; Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, raised $194,512; and Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-OKC, raised $338,683. Alexander said their success goes to show that Oklahoma is still a Republican stronghold, but people feel ostracized by the official party.

“How many Oklahoma Republicans have donated to Jim Inhofe? How many of those donated to James Lankford? When [Bennett] started the divisiveness with them, why would anyone ever want to donate to the state party when you’re attacking people that they donate to and support for election?” Alexander said. “...Then with what was put on Facebook yesterday, how many people do you think that have money that can afford to donate to a political party are going to want to give it to this group? It’s easier just to give it straight to the candidate you support because you don’t want to participate in this or have your name attached to it.”

A state divided

In a deep red state, these fundraising numbers show the scale of the division Bennett has caused in the state Republican Party, Alexander said, and the Facebook post further proved it.

“Comparing the vaccine to the mass genocide of six people is beyond the pale of rhetoric,” Alexander said.

The discontent with the state party stretches to those it helps most: Republicans in the state legislature and other Republican leaders.

Shane Jemison, vice chair of the Oklahoma GOP, publicly condemned the Facebook post’s rhetoric in a statement on Twitter Friday.

“This recent post by the Oklahoma Republican Party is offensive to the survivors and victims, of the Holocaust, as well as the Jewish people,” Jemison said in his post. “… Equating the possibility of private entities requiring their employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to the Holocaust is beyond abhorrent, disgraceful and a gross misrepresentation of the Republican Party and its values here in Oklahoma and nationally.”]

The party is focusing on becoming more radical and far right rather than being a voice for its constituents, a source familiar with the matter said.

“But the state party has to step up and realize that,” they said. “The party is a local, from-the-bottom-up approach, and its entire role is to invest in the infrastructure and help make sure that it builds the infrastructure for what local communities look like, versus the party trying to be the aggressor and force certain policy initiatives down certain people’s throats.”

Reese Gorman covers politics and COVID-19 for The Transcript; reach him at rgorman@normantranscript.com or @reeseg_3.

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Politics Reporter

Reese Gorman covers politics and the COVID-19 pandemic for The Norman Transcript. He started as an intern in May of 2020 and transitioned into his current position as a staff writer in August of 2020.