OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The first Republican candidate to challenge Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said Tuesday he's leaving the party and will run against Stitt as an independent.

Former state Sen. Ervin Yen, an Oklahoma City physician, said in a statement he disagrees with the state party's opposition to mask and vaccine mandates, and the insistence of some party officials that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

"I vehemently disagree with these views and that is why I have withdrawn my Republican voter registration," Yen said. "I have not changed, the party has."

A Chinese-American, Yen was the first Asian American elected to the Oklahoma Legislature and had a reputation as a moderate. He has been particularly critical of Stitt's response to the coronavirus outbreak, especially the governor's opposition to mask mandates.

"I absolutely believe in temporary mask mandates, when needed, to fight this current Covid pandemic," Yen said. "If the state had instituted a state-wide mask mandate in June of 2020, we could have avoided 70% of the Covid deaths that we have suffered since then."

Earlier this month, Republican State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said she was leaving the party and planned to run against Stitt as a Democrat.

A message left Tuesday with the Oklahoma Republican Party seeking comment wasn't immediately returned, but GOP Chairman John Bennett has been critical of some elected Republicans, including Hofmeister, for not adhering to the party's principles.

"It's because we have establishment RINOs, Republicans in name only, who are working against who we say we are as a Republican Party," Bennett said in a video released after Hofmeister's announcement. "The R behind our names must mean something, and we must adhere to our binding and unifying document that is our party platform."

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