Political neophyte backs Democrats, garners “dark money,” and wants to be GOP state Senate nominee

OKLAHOMA CITY – As summer’s near-100 degree days persist, one of the most heated legislative campaigns is the Republican runoff in state Senate District 40, where the two remaining contenders are maneuvering to replace state Sen. Cliff Branan, who is leaving the Legislature due to term limits.

With the runoff election set for Tuesday (August 26), Dr. Ervin Yen of Nichols Hills has a spending advantage and support from groups tied to the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, as well as The State Chamber. Early on in the contest, many State Chamber allies and members coalesced behind Yen, although critics contend he has the least business experience of any hopeful.

A high-ranking Chamber member was involved in the Chamber’s screening process for the primary candidates, but soon thereafter was ram-rod of a drive to raise $100,000 to support Yen.

Yen heavily outspent all of his primary opponents, and entered the final weekend of campaigning with a hefty financial advantage over his runoff opponent, Dr. Steve Kern, a church pastor in west Oklahoma City. In addition to his personal spending edge, Yen has benefited from what appears to be the largest infusion of independent spending impacting any state legislative race in Oklahoma this year.

Dr. Yen has spent heavily on advertising, including in The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspapers, and for direct mail pieces to likely Republican voters.

Dr. Kern has run a grass roots campaign, using direct mail, targeted social media and some paid advertising, including in The City Sentinel.

While Yen — a native of Taiwan, naturalized American citizen and anesthesiologist — has support from business groups, Kern — who has worked several decades as an Oklahoma city pastor — has the backing of conservative activists, including the OK Republican Assembly and OCPAC.

Both candidates have stressed multi-issue conservatism, including fiscal discipline. Kern is a well-known conservative leader. Yen is new to political campaigning, although The Oklahoma Constitution newspaper recently detailed his contribution to Andrew Rice when the MidTown Democrat ran against U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe.

The strongest evidence of direct ties between the Yen campaign and varied independent expenditures lies in the fact that, as one closer observer put it, “a number of elements of mailings distributed by those groups on his behalf were essentially identical to material in his own campaign mailings.”

This source continued, “The Oklahoma Society of Anesthesiologists put out a mailing in mid-May which included a copy of his naturalization document, showing that he was ‘a testament to the American dream.’ Oddly, his own mailing with the same exact document hit the mail several days later. 

It is difficult to believe that there was no collusion between Yen’s campaign and the anesthesiology group; otherwise how would they have gained access to his naturalization papers?”

Yen is also backed by OK United, known as a “dark money” group, apparently an offshoot of the OKC United group that played a role in the city’s recent mayoral election. That group is also active in a few other legislative races.

In the crucial primary time frame, there were seven pro-Yen mailings to District 40 voters from the Oklahoma Society of Anesthesiologist, and three from OK United pressing for Yen’s nomination.

In the primary, Dr. Yen secured 39.1 percent support (2,742 votes) to Dr. Kern’s 1,400 (19.9 percent). Trailing the field were Brian Winslow with 874 (12.5 percent), David Hooten with 792 votes (11.3 percent of the total), Joe Howell 679 votes (9.7 percent) and Michael Taylor with 531 (7.6 percent).

In another development linked to the State Chamber, executive director Fred Morgan (former state House Republican leader) encouraged one of the other primary hopefuls to enter the race before shifting support to Yen.

Shortly after the primary, consultant Neva Hill, an experienced conservative operative with dozens of winning clients over the her career, joined Dr. Yen’s campaign. She had backed businessman Joe Howell in the primary, and for a time, in exchanges with friends and allies, criticized independent expenditures for Yen.

The August 26 runoff will determine the Republican nominee. 

The victor will face John Handy Edwards, regarded as a highly credible Democrat, in the November general election.

Disclosure: In the primary, The City Sentinel newspaper, with which CapitolBeatOK Editor Pat McGuigan is affiliated endorsed Michael Taylor. In the runoff, the newspaper has endorsed Dr. Steve Kern.