as the SRLC celebrates the Republican Party, each candidate will be looking to communicate a distinct message at this year’s conference, which runs Thursday- Saturday at Cox Convention Center and Renaissance Oklahoma City Convention Center Hotel. 

As Republicans gather this week in Oklahoma City for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC), a handful of announced 2016 presidential election candidates will find a welcoming audience inside Cox Convention Center and in a state that is as red as they come.

Oklahoma’s Republican presidential candidate voting percentage has grown in every election cycle since 1996. Here, state lawmakers have strengthened abortion restrictions, as Oklahoma is one of only four states with a 72-hour waiting period — the longest in the nation — and most social issues, including same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization and immigration, still swing strongly right of the national average, according to various polls, including Gallup.

“The road to win back the White House begins in Oklahoma City,” said Gov. Mary Fallin in a welcome video referencing SRLC’s role in the 2016 campaign.

This state might appear to be the epicenter of Republican values and policies, but it might be more realistic to add that it’s also a shelter from an America that the party has struggled to adapt to.

A majority of Americans support same- sex marriage and tougher environmental protections, and the GOP has won the presidential popular vote just once out of the last six election cycles, which means any journey back to the White House might have to include a fresh message.

Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio are four of the 11 announced presidential candidates here this week to raise money and profiles ahead of next year’s primary battle. But as the SRLC celebrates the Republican Party, each candidate will be looking to communicate a distinct message at this year’s conference, which runs Thursday- Saturday at Cox Convention Center and Renaissance Oklahoma City Convention Center Hotel.

Message diversity

“For too long, the Democrats have defined what it means to be a Republican,” said Estela Hernandez, Oklahoma Republican Party vice- chairwoman.

She also said that her party is much more philosophically diverse than people give it credit for.

The 2016 candidates might appear similar on buzz issues that dominate cable news shows, but recent gatherings show differing views on various issues, and Hernandez believes this week’s conference will further highlight those contrasts, including opinions on how to win a majority of votes nationally.

At an April event hosted by the New Hampshire Republican Party, candidates like Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham urged their peers to find immigration reform solutions as a way to broaden the diversity of its mostly white voter base.

“Of course, candidates have to appeal to the Republican base to win a primary,” Glenn McCall, a South Carolina Republican party leader at the conference, told The Wall Street Journal last month. “But you also have to talk about new ideas and issues that relate to these communities that we have to make better headway in: the Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American communities.”

On the other side of the spectrum are candidates like Ted Cruz, who say the nation needs tougher immigration reform.

Jamison Faught, author of Muskogee Politico, a popular Republican-leaning political blog, said there also are “old- versus-new” differences between the candidates who will be on display this week.

“I think nominating a candidate like Jeb Bush would be a big mistake,” Faught told Oklahoma Gazette as he explained why he believes that the next nominee should not be heavily tied to the so-called Republican establishment. “The Republicans this time around have so many young, fresh faces. The Democratic candidate might very well be almost 70 years old. I think the Republicans have a good opportunity to present a forward- looking candidate.”

Estela said shifts in culture could present a challenge to Republicans.

“I understand that popular culture is shifting, but we cannot allow that to change us as individuals or as a party,” Estela said. “But no matter what your demographics or what your views are, there is room for you [in the Republican party], which is what our message has to be. We are for limited government and personal responsibility ... that really defines a Republican.”

For Faught, some candidates are better than others at projecting inclusivity, especially to a younger demographic.

“With the younger generation coming up, the big thing you see is dealing with individual liberties and individual freedoms,” Faught said. “You see candidates like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz preaching that message, to an extent. When I look at the millennial generation, I think I see an opening there that has gone Democrat in the last several elections. If the Republican Party can tap into [this generation] ... which says, ‘Leave me alone and let me do what I feel is best,’ that could be a big key in 2016.”

The base

The first official straw poll in the Republican primary race will be featured at the SRLC, and it will reveal an early lead for one candidate, along with a gauge of others’ momentum. Considering that no county in the state has voted for a Democratic president since 2000 and that Republicans hold every statewide seat, Oklahoma appears to be the ideal state in which to test candidates’ messages with their Republican base.

However, the state’s conservative bent has also placed it in the national spotlight in recent months in somewhat negative ways, including lawmaker attempts to ban clothing that hides people’s faces, like hoodies, and threats to abolish all marriage as a way to subvert the legalization of gay marriage. Both attempts failed.

“What the fuck, Oklahoma?” Daily Show host Jon Stewart recently remarked about a new Oklahoma law that prevents municipalities from regulating fracking, a decision that critics allege puts the oil and gas industry above the safety and rights of local people and governments. “You finally admit that fracking has turned your state into one giant Brookstone massage chair and your first response is to insure [no one] can never stop it. Why?”

In reality, few conservatives care what Stewart has to say, but even groups like the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce have asked the state to reconsider its stance on a variety of issues ranging from guns to marriage because of the negative impact it can have on the way outside companies view the state.

However, while the state’s Republican identity might be tied to its socially conservative stance, Oklahoma City has been showcased as a model for Republican values as they relate to business and local government. As one of the few large American cities with a Republican mayor, over the past two decades, OKC has drawn attention for large capital improvement projects.

News stories about the city’s success often refer to the juxtaposition of a conservative city approving a tax increase, but Mayor Mick Cornett said it is instead an example of conservative city revitalization.

“Interestingly, we have not done this by creating large amounts of debt,” Cornett said while speaking at the 2012 Republican National Convention. “We did something unique for many of our infrastructure packages: We paid cash.”

Estela said OKC also has a strong business community that has played a large role in the city’s redevelopment.

“Oklahoma City is a place that has made sure we let businesses do what businesses do best and not have the government run them,” Estela said. “That’s a conservative idea that people will see is successful when they come to Oklahoma City.”

Any remaining tickets will be available through on-site registration for Thursday’s Welcome Reception, Friday’s T. Boone Pickens Luncheon and the Energizing America Gala. Several other ticketed events will be held during the conference. Learn more and check ticket availability at

The lineup

Eleven announced or expected presidential candidates have confirmed a trip to OKC this week as eight months remain before the first presidential primary in Iowa. Here is a look at the visiting candidates.

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Jeb Bush

The former Florida governor also is the brother of former president George W. Bush, which his critics view as a liability. He has name recognition and money but struggled in early polls in conservative states like Iowa. He has demonstrated stronger polling in more moderate states like New Hampshire.


Ben Carson

The retired surgeon also is an accomplished author and conservative speaker. In recent years, his criticism of the Obama administration raised his status and earned him support among evangelicals, especially for his views on social issues.

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Chris Christie

The former governor of New Jersey also considered a run for president in 2012 and drew attention for his success in a Democratic state. A scandal over the closure of a lane on the state’s Fort Lee bridge threatened his credibility but has not appeared to kill his viability as a presidential contender — although a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed Christie had the ninth-worst rating results among self- identified Republican primary voters to the question, “Could you see yourself supporting [this candidate] for the Republican nomination for president in 2016?”

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Ted Cruz

This Texas senator is a fierce critic of President Barack Obama and often speaks about threats to religious liberty, a talking point popular among evangelicals.


Carly Fiorina

Fiorina brings private sector experience to the race as the former executive officer of Hewlett-Packard. She is the only woman to announce herself as a Republican presidential candidate.

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Lindsey Graham

The South Carolina senator is a prominent Republican name in D.C. but is behind the curve on the fundraising front. He is expected to officially announce his presidential run next month.

Bobby Jindal

Like Christie, Jindal is a popular Republican governor who, rumor has it, has been considering a presidential run for a while. Officially joining the race, the Louisiana governor is pushing to improve his name recognition, which lags behind many other candidates.

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Marco Rubio

The Florida senator is viewed by some as the party’s best shot at attracting Latino voters and has developed a celebrity status similar to Obama in the months leading up to his announcement that he will run for president.

Rick Santorum

The former Pennsylvania senator ran for president in 2012 and won the Iowa caucus, along with several other Southern states, before giving way to Mitt Romney.

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Scott Walker

The Wisconsin governor impressed many Republican pundits after surviving pushback on anti-union legislation he supported that drew an unsuccessful recall effort.

“Clearly, he’s not well known within Washington, D.C., with social conservative leaders. He’s more known for his battle with unions in Wisconsin,” Tony Perkins, the president of Family Research Council, recently told Politico. “I think people are wondering, ‘Where does he stand?’”

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