Oklahomans widely assumed that 12 Republican state lawmakers who lost their bids for re-election came up short at the polls because of their opposition to raising pay for the state’s public school teachers. Educators and their supporters in the Sooner State were energized after teachers walked out of classes in the spring and protested for two weeks to make their voices heard at the Capitol. What’s more, many teachers decided to become candidates themselves to challenge incumbents who opposed education funding.
While opposition to education funding may have been one factor in incumbent losses in the Republican primaries, Oklahoma City-based reporter Sean Murphy began hearing scuttlebutt about an organized effort from within the Republican Party to kick out incumbents from their own party.
Using campaign finance reports and solid sourcing at the Capitol, Murphy was able to show that the rumors were true.
Public records showed a top state House GOP leader, Rep. Chris Kannady, had given money to opponents of two of his own colleagues. And the opponents won. Murphy also leveraged a relationship developed over years of reporting to get Kannady to talk after the lawmaker initially dodged him. Kannady, a House floor leader and chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, acknowledged a plan to punish fellow Republicans for taking hardline stances that forced a compromise with Democrats on a plan to raise taxes to pay for teacher raises. Murphy’s reporting also showed a parallel attack from an out-of-state super PAC against some of the same Republicans who won’t be returning in the spring of 2019.
Murphy was the only member of the Oklahoma Capitol press corps to use the publicly available campaign finance records to break the story.
Play for Murphy’s story, which caused a stir among the conservative wing of the GOP, included a rare bylined section front in the Tulsa World.
For combining shoe-leather reporting with smart document work, Murphy wins this week’s Best of the States award.