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Stephanie Bice's path reveals opportunities, perils for suburban Republicans

Stephanie Akin, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

EDMUND, Okla. — As the Oklahoma Republican Party verged on implosion this summer, GOP Rep. Stephanie Bice donned a hard hat and toured a vocational-technical school under construction here in her district.

The facility was state-of-the-art, with modern furniture so new it was still encased in plastic and with glass-walled conference rooms where future students would, a guide explained, “learn creative problem-solving through human-centered design.”

Within a few days, forces in the state GOP loyal to former President Donald Trump would attempt to censure the state’s two senators — Republicans James M. Inhofe and James Lankford — for voting to certify the 2020 presidential election won by Joe Biden.

Bice, who unseated Democrat Kendra Horn in the Oklahoma City-anchored 5th District last fall, had not weighed in publicly. Since winning her swing seat, she has shunned the Twitter wars and internal party disputes that have catapulted some of her colleagues in the Republican freshman class to Fox News fame.

Instead, she has favored low-key, sound bite-free appearances like this visit to the vo-tech school, where she assured local education leaders at a follow-up discussion that she was focused on workforce development.

“I am a reasonable, conservative Republican,” Bice said in an interview.

That approach has not spared her from criticism. Even though she has voted in line with House Republicans more than 95% of the time, the state GOP chairman publicly rebuked her for voting in May for an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Democrats, meanwhile, are not impressed by that vote or other rare breaks with her party, saying Bice is too extreme for the increasingly cosmopolitan region. According to CQ Vote Watch, Bice voted against a majority of her fellow Republicans nine times this year, out of 197 votes tallied through mid-September.

“She has had several opportunities to show what she is really about and what she supports,” said Abby Broyles, a lawyer and former television news anchor running for the Democratic nod to challenge Bice next year. “But she toes the party line.”

Bice’s supporters say redistricting could improve her reelection prospects in 2022, and if Republicans win back the House, her experience as a former state senator and identity as a nuts-and-bolts lawmaker could make her a valuable part of that majority.

“The day is coming soon when House Republicans are going to have to show that they can lead,” said Cam Savage, a GOP strategist who served as a consultant for Bice’s 2020 campaign. “It’s one thing to be in the minority and just go vote ‘no’ all the time. It is a different thing to have to run a dozen or so important committees, to appropriate, to pass legislation through committees, through the floor, to negotiate with the Senate to get things done.”

Staying above the fray?

With autumn here, the pressure on Bice from within her party appears to be lifting. Oklahoma GOP leaders have said nothing about her since party Chairman John Bennett posted a rebuke on Facebook in May following her Jan. 6 commission vote. Bennett’s post is now blocked from public view, and he did not respond to a request for an interview.

Bice, who voted in January to oppose certification of the presidential result in Arizona, has repeatedly given the same explanation for her stance on both the 2020 presidential election and the Capitol riot, positions she reiterated in an interview with CQ Roll Call.

She said she wanted to make a statement about the integrity of state lawmakers’ control over how elections are administered, noting a 2020 state Supreme Court ruling that allowed voters to cast absentee ballots without getting them notarized.

Voting rights advocates said the measure would protect voters during the coronavirus pandemic, but state Republican lawmakers called the decision judicial overreach and rushed a party-line bill through the Legislature restoring the requirement.

“Oklahoma could have become a statistic like other states that had their election laws changed by judicial or executive decree,” Bice said. “For me, that was something that was very troubling.”

She has not repeated Trump’s claims that the election was fraudulent — putting her at odds with a wave of GOP lawmakers and candidates who have staked their 2022 campaigns on casting doubts about the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency.

Bice initially waved away a question about whether Biden won the election, saying, “That’s a nonissue for me at this point.” When pressed, she added: “Based on what we have seen, he did. He’s the president.”

‘Political theater’

Bice was in the House gallery as rioters overtook the Capitol on Jan. 6 and was shuffled from one location to another through basement corridors, she said. She said the events of that day represented a failure of Capitol Police leadership.

“That needs to be looked at, but it needs to be looked at in a bipartisan fashion,” she said. She was one of 35 House Republicans who split with party leadership to vote for the nonpartisan Jan. 6 commission, many of them from swing districts like her own. But she drew a distinction between that measure and a later vote — after Senate Republicans had blocked the bipartisan probe — to establish a House select committee to investigate the riot, which she said could be “nothing but political theater.”

Bice’s supporters said the nuance in her positions surrounding the events of Jan. 6 shows that she takes her job seriously.

 

In the state Senate, Bice was an assistant majority floor leader and chaired the Finance Committee. Upon arriving in Congress, she was elected class president by her GOP freshman peers.

Several Republican strategists who spoke on the condition of anonymity said both experiences would be good springboards for future leadership positions. Bice is also the only woman in Oklahoma’s five-member House delegation and, as the first Iranian American elected to Congress, she adds diversity to the GOP Conference.

Democrats accuse her of being an apologist for extremists.

At a town hall in September, Bice said she had signed a letter to the Justice Department expressing concerns that some of the people arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 riot were being held in solitary confinement and deprived of a fair trial, according to local media reports.

While most have been released from custody while awaiting trial, some remain in jail and some in solitary confinement, according to PolitiFact.

“She was more passionate about the conditions of the Jan. 6 rioters in prison than the conditions Oklahoma is facing,” Broyles said, citing the recent surge in coronavirus cases in the state.

Broyles said Bice had missed opportunities to demonstrate bipartisan leadership important to Oklahomans when she sided with Republicans on a party-line vote against advancing an infrastructure reconciliation package that included broadband expansion — a key issue for the state’s agriculture community — and legislation to promote equal pay for men and women performing the same job, which passed the House in April with only one Republican “yes” vote.

The handful of times Bice has split with her party include her support for reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in March and for workplace accommodations for pregnant women in May.

“We want to keep women in the workplace,” Bice said of the latter vote, noting that she remembers what it was like to be eight months pregnant. (Her children are now in high school and college.) “This is a way to ensure that they’re getting the accommodations that they need.”

Formidable matchup

Broyles is making her second bid for Congress, after losing to Inhofe by 30 points in 2020, though she did outraise him in the last fundraising quarter. Horn, who also has a reputation as a strong fundraiser and a tireless campaigner, has not announced her plans, spurring speculation she is considering another run.

State Democratic leaders predict the 2022 House race will be competitive, regardless of how Republicans redraw the district boundaries.

They note that census results showed Oklahoma City gaining at least 100,000 new residents since 2010, growth they attributed to an influx of young, culturally diverse people, increasing the number of potentially left-leaning voters.

Democrats say it would be difficult for mapmakers to draw in more conservative areas without taking supporters away from Bice’s GOP colleagues around the state.

Republicans don’t buy it.

They say Horn’s 2018 victory was an anomaly, buoyed by a national environment favorable to Democrats, an opponent — GOP Rep. Steve Russell — who was caught unprepared, and a last-minute spending boost from a super PAC backed by Michael Bloomberg.

Trump carried the district by 13 points in 2016 and by 5 points in 2020, slightly besting Bice’s 4-point margin over Horn. Nonpartisan analysts say it would be easy to shore up the district for Republicans.

Bice had nearly $700,000 in her campaign account on June 30 and has already shown herself to be a tough opponent in a general and a primary election. In 2020, she beat businesswoman Terry Neese in a primary runoff, even though the anti-tax Club for Growth Action spent nearly $960,000 against her.

“She was outspent by millions of dollars, and everybody and their brother spent considerable resources attacking her,” Savage said. “And then she did it again in the general election while being outspent. She’s a tough hombre. So my message would be this: People need to pack a lunch if they think she’s going to be easy to knock off. … I wouldn’t mess with her if I were them.”

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(Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.)

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