Opinion: Looking back on the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC) in Oklahoma City, I cannot help but think how empowering the event was for the State Party and Oklahoma as a whole. I have been involved in Republican circles in various capacities since 2004, so whenever I first heard about the event, I was ecstatic. This was the biggest national political event in Oklahoma history and I was glad to serve as a volunteer for the three day conference from beginning to end.
First, I noted was how warm and welcoming Mayor Mick Cornett was in his introductions to the attendees first at the reception Thursday night and at the start of the general session on Friday.
His broadcast background served him well and his leadership of Oklahoma City over the last decade was showcased in the vibrant activities available to conference-goers and average citizens alike surrounding the area by the convention center.
Our Governor, Mary Fallin, was a shining example of Oklahoma grace in meeting and greeting distinguished guests and attendees with her trademark smile.
An early powerful personally impressive speaker was Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus. More than any chair of the Grand Old Party since at least Ed Gillespie, he made direct appeals; to build party infrastructure, to stay involved and for attendees to become a force in years beyond the presidential elections.
Preibus said the party had become too candidate-focused to the detriment of actual contact and connection with voters. Fortunately, he said, in this past midterm cycle the trend began to be reversed. Preibus cited the Cuyahoga County victory by John Kasich in Ohio as an example of urban and minority outreach by the party. Preibus said the next year and a half will be a continuous effort to build the party from the ground up to be every bit the equal in organization and execution to that of the Democrats, an ambitious goal cheered from the floor.
Another impressive speaker Thursday was Governor Scott Walker. His 20 minute speech was not as applause-heavy as the other later candidates with the exception of a forthright declaration of support of Israel, but his storytelling exuded a Midwestern warmth that draws the listener’s attention.
The way Gov. Walker speaks suggests he doesn’t need to stir cheap heat, but stands with confidence on his record of union reforms, tax cuts, pro-life issues, and Republican unification in a state that had long been on the bluer shade of purple. While Gov. Walker finished second in the straw poll, he was the first choice amongst Oklahoma natives. Gov. Walker organized no specific effort to win the poll – a very good sign of strength for the Southern primary strongholds.
Mark Costello, Oklahoma State Commissioner of Labor, gave a very strong fundamental defense of the capitalist system. He illustrated the plentiful bounties of free enterprise by mentioning Polish refugees in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s who thought our grocery stores were Potemkin setups but were 100% genuine – just one aspect of what we have to endeavor to preserve and defend as Republicans.
Commissioner Costello is growing visibility and support in statewide politics based on his conservative fundamentals, outstanding narrative skills, personal warmth with self-deprecating humor and effective office administration – an incomparable documented record of cutting waste.
Next Rick Santorum spoke. His speech was forceful and, to some surprise, not focused on the social issues that had defined much of his career over the past 25 years. More than any other speaker during the conference; Sen. Santorum addressed working families and their aspirations in the economy of today and going forward, and what policies can be pursued to help them achieve the American Dream while still keeping citizens safe in a time of war.
The most telling thing about Sen. Santorum to me, however, was the reaction of one of my colleagues from a more moderate background, who said that Sen. Santorum’s speech was good enough to make him think twice about his opposition. Sen. Santorum did not do well in the straw poll, but if he can turn enough heads like my colleague, he may continue to grow strength in the long race to the nomination.
In between SRLC’s general sessions there were several breakout session for attendees, sponsored by the Leadership Institute. These sessions, especially the ones involving electioneering, were expertly led by Ron Nehring, the former GOP Chair in California, and Carmella Martinez, the Institute’s main liaison to the conference. I was glad they could attend to address “best strategies” for those attendees considering a run for public office.
Friday was planned as the main day for presidential candidates who are U.S. Senators to speak at the SRLC, but due to votes relating to the Patriot Act, FISA, and the TPP, none of them were able to make it.
Appearances on screen limited their ability to connect to the audience, but their messages were still accessible. Senator Lindsey Graham focused his message on rebuilding national defense and re-engaging in the Middle East, and Senator Rubio focused on his family’s story and how to rebuild the American Dream. I believe that if they were able to attend in person, they would have all been better received and positions in the straw poll would likely have improved.
Running on very little sleep after extreme travel, Senator Lankford spoke in his deep baritone on multiple national issues important for Oklahoma.
Governor Christie Friday morning delivered a stem-winder. His style of forthright directness was surprisingly effective and earned him a distant, but very good, 4th place finish in the straw poll. One friend of mine came to his speech skeptical, but after is giving him a second look, especially in the push for entitlement reforms. While Gov. Christie will face the same problems Giuliani faced in trying to engage the party outside of his Northeastern base, he is a serious challenger for the nomination.
Probably the most surprisingly disappointing appearance by any major candidate was former Governor Jeb Bush. His more private appearance did not go over so well with many attendees, especially concerning the Patriot Act, and his main speech was lifeless.
President George W. Bush owned Oklahoma politically like no other candidate before him when he ran for both terms. However, Gov. Jeb Bush delivered a weak finish in the straw poll and the general feeling amongst attendees was not positive. Regardless of funding, if Bush cannot gain the engagement of the grassroots – he will not prevail to win the Republican nomination.
Between sessions Friday, I had the good fortune to attend the Birthday Bash for T. Boone Pickens, who turned 87.
Pickens spoke specifically on how and why he developed the “Pickens Plan” several years ago and how he tried to influence Obama in the one meeting he had with him which, in his opinion, was a failure on many counts. Altogether, this child of Holdenville, Oklahoma received a hero’s reception. Despite occasionally ruffling feathers; Pickens has well-earned his place of respect in Oklahoma.
Governor Bobby Jindal’s tack was different than any other candidate who attended the SRLC. He made an explicit play Friday afternoon as a culture warrior, a mantle nobody else has been trying to claim this cycle and specifically called out Corporate America on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
Gov. Jindal made clear he is actively contrarian on that issue and likely others going forward. If he can cultivate that contrarian niche, it could serve him well in Iowa and South Carolina.
The gala dinner was different than planned. Senator Ted Cruz was supposed to attend and give the keynote, but he had to pipe it in like the others. What was different, however, was that despite the barrier of the video screen, he brought cheers from the crowd almost as if he was there, and threw red meat as well as anyone.
Sen. Cruz then expertly introduced his father to give the final minutes of his time, and it was powerful. There were more than a few similarities in Pastor Cruz’s speech to Rubio’s (i.e., the fleeing of Cuba and the loss of freedom there), but his appeal to the cause of freedom was exceptionally good. Pastor Cruz was also available to speak to general attendees the next day, and due to those efforts and those of his team from Texas along with his record and his rhetorical talents, Sen. Cruz placed a very impressive 3rd place in the straw poll.
The main fill-in for the keynote Friday night, however, was Ben Carson. He like many others, reflected on his back-story, but Carson had the opportunity to detail it more than any other candidate. The ability to connect with the audience and his personal contact with attendees after his speech that night and before he spoke the next day endeared him greatly to any who wanted to approach. Carson brought a lot of supporters, but his willingness to speak to any who wanted to talk to him helped Carson win 1st place in the straw poll.
Carly Fiorina was stunning and definitely outperformed expectations, but had the misfortune of coming at the end of the conference when the straw poll had wrapped up. Fiorina outperformed all expectations, and I think she would have finished in the middle of the pack with Christie and Perry had she spoken earlier.
Fiorina embraced the role of aggressive attacker quickly and relished it. The way she reeled off the four things she would immediately do to counteract Putin was incredibly swift and, to me, awe-inspiring. She also did not shy away from her fall as head of Hewlett-Packard a decade ago. It will be a narrow opening, but if she can adequately address her HP tenure and solidify her policy objectives, she can become a major contender for the nomination later in the year.
My immense appreciation and thanks go to the organizers, sponsors and participants in the Southern Republican Leadership conference. Event Chairman Steve Fair and Carolyn McLarty organized and executed this event with joyous gusto, and Gary Jones, Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector, as always, worked tirelessly in his efforts to advance conservative principles and Republican efforts as he has for over a decade.
Bill Shapard with Sooner Poll delivered the best ever turnout of any SRLC for a straw poll, and I congratulate him on that effort.
The little girl who sang her heart out at the reception and gala was incredible.
Tony Sutton, the former Chair of the GOP in Minnesota attended all three days and was inspirational throughout as he talked personally with attendees; I thank the many other vendors for coming, as well, and connecting with our attendees.
I thank the Oklahoma GOP, both previous and current leadership, for helping coordinate and pull off this whole effort of hosting a national party conference.
Most importantly, I thank my fellow volunteers, who made this event so fun and exciting for all. Through these efforts, others have said and I believe the State of Oklahoma is on the map as a political force.
About the author:
Christopher Chesny is a graduate of Arizona State University with a B.A. in Political Science and lives in Claremore, Oklahoma.
He can be reached at