John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, analyzes the behind-the-scenes infighting between extremist MAGA Republicans and traditional conservatives, who don’t use inflammatory rhetoric and prefer to know the cost of new programs before they pass them.

He writes:

Across the nation, voters are following the battles between former-President Donald Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis. There is no way to know how that conflict between extremist Republicans will play out, but I find it hard to believe it won’t damage their party’s chances in 2024. Even in Oklahoma, Trump’s unfavorable rating has grown to 47%, and conflicts between conservatives and MAGAs are becoming more public.

And as Oklahoma Republicans, such as State Superintendent Ryan Walters, Governor Kevin Stitt, and House Speaker Charles McCall, ramp up their irrational, inflammatory rhetoric, there seems to be both a growing behind-the-scenes and public responses by some traditionally conservative Republicans against the far right. This post will focus on two issues where it seems like the Republican leader of the Senate, Greg Treat is pushing back on the MAGAs.

To understand these disputes, however, a confusing aspect of the Oklahoma constitutional system must be understood. Oklahoma has two statewide education leadership positions; the Secretary of Education is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, who is elected by the people.

The Oklahoman now reports on a behind-the-scenes issue that could be an important response to Walters. Walters was first appointed as Secretary of Education by Gov. Stitt, and was quickly confirmed by the Senate. Walters was then elected to the State Superintendent office, and reappointed by Stitt as Secretary of Education.

This time, however, there is no movement towards his reconfirmation to that position. The Oklahoman explains, “Walters is still waiting, and it there has been little or no work done to shepherd his nomination through the Senate, even though his previous term expired on Jan. 9.” It adds that the job is mostly to advise the governor and has “few legal responsibilities.” However, the confirmation delay “highlights the ongoing political conflict between the executive and legislative branches of Oklahoma’s government.”

Given the pushback by some influential Republicans against Walters’ bizarre rhetoric and overreach (not to mention his misuse of federal funds), the lack of movement toward confirming Walters is not good news for Walters and his rightwing allies. Whether or not Walters loses his Secretary of Education position is obviously unknown. It might just be a threat serving as a “bargaining chip” for advancing the Senate agenda, as opposed to the Walters’ and the Speaker of the Houses’ extremism. But, either way, the MAGAs’ agenda is threatened by such publicity.

Moreover, this happened as Walters, as the Tulsa World reported, emailed all legislators “images and text [that] depict gay sex and ambiguously gendered bodies. The email provides no context to the images.” The World also reported, “Some of those receiving the emails said Walters quickly tried to ‘unsend,’ or retrieve them.” Walters was invited to the Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Education to provide evidence for the email’s claims but he didn’t respond. Instead, as the Oklahoman reported, he sent “lawmakers a list of four books he deemed “pornographic,” four more ‘books in the marketplace to monitor’ and 190 children’s books focused on LGBTQ+ themes.” School system leaders denied Walters’ claims about four pornographic books that allegedly were in their schools. These continuing behaviors have made Walters more vulnerable.

Also during the week, Speaker Charles McCall, who apparently hopes to run for governor, doubled down on outrageous demands and claims against the Senate Republican leadership. Previously he demanded that the vote for his education funding bill, including vouchers (called tax credits), be passed without amendments, which the Senate refused to do. So when the Senate defied McCall and Gov. Stitt by putting an income cap of $250,000 on families for school choice tax credits, McCall called it “class warfare.” Sen. Treat replied, “The speaker seems to be intent on torpedoing meaningful education reform… It is unfortunate and I hope he comes to his senses.”

Then, illustrating the depth of the conflict between the Senate and House leaders, the Speaker’s office made the bizarre claim that under the Senate’s $285 million a year plan, “The Senate amendments to House Bill 2775 would only require public school districts following the state minimum salary schedule to give full teacher pay raises, neglecting over 43,000 teachers in over 400 districts.” (Oklahoma has around 45,000 teachers) Sen. Treat’s office replied “that every teacher in the state would get a pay bump based off years of service,” and that “The speaker is operating in a fantasy land.” Again, these behaviors are making the MAGAs more vulnerable.

And that leads to the second major story which seems to represent the best pushback by the Senate leadership against the behaviors of rightwing ideologues. As I explained previously,the Oklahoman’s Ben Felder reported, despite a $700 million incentive, Volkswagen chose to invest in Canada with its “strong ESG (environmental, social and governance) practices,” rather than Oklahoma where Gov. Stitt had said, “don’t expect support from us unless you reject ESG.”

I must stress that counter-attacks by conservative, pro-voucher Republicans are not an answer to continuing assaults on public education, and neither can we merely trust pro-corporate Republicans’ call for rethinking the reasons why corporations reject Oklahoma’s subsidies for investing here. But, Senate Pro Tem Treat and many or most Republican legislators must understand that such extreme rhetoric is making it harder to attract corporations that invest in Oklahoma.

Sen.Treat formed a panel to study why Volkswagen and Panasonic rejected subsidies up to $700 million, and he cited the lessons of recent history. After United Airlines rejected incentives for investing in Oklahoma City because it lacked the cultural institutions that its employees would want, in the early 1990s the city made a plan, raised taxes, and invested in social and educational institutions.

While I praise Treat’s initiative, I’ve wondered whether his predominantly Republican effort would be transparent and open-minded. I have been urging the panel members I know to listen to the leaders who succeeded in transforming Oklahoma City. Number 1 on my list has been Cliff Hudson who led the bipartisan MAPS for Kids which saved the Oklahoma City Public School System from collapsing. I have never participated in a greater, evidence-based process which truly listened to researchers, educators, students, parents, and the community. So, I was thrilled to see Hudson’s guest editorial in the Oklahoman.

Hudson explained that “many business leaders who aren’t from here” understand that “Oklahoma is committed to providing competitive financial incentives and that our tax policies are considered pro-business.” But, Hudson notes, “they also hear the hateful rhetoric that can make people feel unwelcome, either because of their gender, their religion, their skin color or their orientation.”

Hudson knows that “Oklahomans are, overall, kind, welcoming and loving.” But he rejects “the negative voices … [that make] things harder for all of us.” It “means fewer companies will want to bring their jobs here. It means the best and brightest may choose not move here — or that they grow up here and leave as soon as they can.” So, “we miss out on great executives, exciting creatives and dedicated medical professionals when we don’t make clear that everyone is valued and welcomed in Oklahoma.”

In other words, especially if Republican leaders listen to Hudson and others who transformed the Oklahoma City (and Tulsa) metropolitan areas, we can build on our strengths. But first, I believe, they must reject these hate-filled MAGAs and learn from our history, and the values we once praised as “the Oklahoma Standard.” And at some point, traditional conservatives, as is true across the nation, must explicitly condemn the rightwingers who are spreading hate, and threatening our democracy and its norms.