Ben Carson Prevails in GOP Straw Poll

Dr. Ben Carson, Republican presidential candidate, speaks at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City on May 22, 2015. Rick Wilking/Reuters

OKLAHOMA CITY—In the end it was probably the soothing tone of the brain surgeon, the last voice you hear before slipping off into the black sleep of anesthesia, that won the first straw poll of the GOP 2016 presidential race. That and the sine qua non of Republicanism, the rags to riches story involving a sainted single mother and a son who disdains entitlements as character-weakening.

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who won with 25 percent of the vote in a field of 17 candidates, wasn’t even supposed to be the featured speaker at Friday night’s Southern Republican Leadership Conference, but he answered an emergency call and landed among a group of people who’d just spent two days listening to politicians warning of the threat of ISIS not only in the Middle East but maybe even within our borders.

The gathering, billed as the largest political convention in the history of the state of Oklahoma, drew an overwhelmingly white and middle-aged crowd of about 1,400 attendees who wanted to take a gander at a herd of GOP presidential candidates.

“Where else do you get to meet [17] presidential candidates for $75?” asked Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Randy Brogdon. In an era in which candidates and their supporters solicit millions of dollars from billionaires, that question is much more than rhetorical.

The candidates homed in on two themes: national security and the supposedly failed “Obama recovery.” For two days, it was all ISIS, all the time, with a dash of conservative populism. The social issues guaranteed to please a crowd in the hometown of the anti-contraception Hobby Lobby were comparatively minor, although there were references to “religious liberty”—code for saving marriage for heterosexuals.

The audience laughed at jokes about George Stephanopoulos carrying Hillary Clinton’s voluminous baggage, cheered the color guard and the 12-year-old singing prodigy who belted out patriotic songs, jeered President Barack Obama and delivered standing ovations to send “radical Islam” straight to hell, as Bobby Jindal put it. Jindal and Chris Christie showed up in a person, along with Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Carson. Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham beamed in on video, having been detained in the Senate because of Rand Paul’s Patriot Act filibuster. Mike Huckabee sent his wife, Janet.

But all the southern-fried jawin’ and yawlin’ (Christie was the only presumptive or announced candidate who didn’t at least try to talk Dixie or mention prayer) couldn’t mask the sense that the halls of the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City were haunted by violence, terrorism and global disorder.

Four blocks away, a small vale of grass dotted with empty chairs rolls gently down to a reflecting pool on the spot where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood. Since right wing extremist Timothy McVeigh ignited a fuse to a fertilizer-loaded Ryder truck bomb and killed 168 people, OKC’s skyline has changed dramatically, thanks to the natural gas boom that’s enriched local energy companies, many of which were bankrolling the convention and were recognized in the theme “Energizing America.”

Many of the speakers hailed Oklahoma’s “super-red” status. The legislature was historically Democratic until 2006, and now the GOP has a supermajority, and every elected state and federal official. Oklahoma was the first state to outlaw sharia law. The legislature ended its 2015 session Friday with, among its signal achievements, passage of a new, supposedly more humane backup method of execution for people on death row—using nitrogen hypoxia—just in case the Supreme Court outlaws lethal injection after the state’s recent ghastly final-hour errors.

The state’s gun laws are among the most permissive in America, nullifying federal gun regulations.  

The deep redness of Oklahoma and its faith in guns to maintain order weren’t the primary or even the best reasons for the conference to be held here. The venue also offered candidates a chance to cement their fealty to one of the Republican party’s primary donor bases—the oil and gas industry. Like Texas, Oklahoma is an oilman’s state: bought, run and sustained by men who’ve made huge fortunes on fossil fuels and in which fracking has been under way for so long and so deeply that scientists now believe the spate of hundreds of earthquakes there are anthropogenic. One of the events was an 87th birthday party for T. Boone Pickens, whose legendary fortune gushed from crude.

In case anyone failed to notice the theme of “Energizing America,” emblazoned on the backdrop of the stage, a glimmery silver-blue tower of the Devon Oil Company loomed a block to the northwest, and the Chesapeake Energy Arena and the Continental Oil Center flanked the venue, reminders of who really runs the Sooner state. In the hours between speeches from the big name candidates, CEOs of the local energy concerns strolled to the stage to hail the future of oil and to complain that the oil glut in America has caused thousands of layoffs and losses of billions of dollars in profits. On Thursday, Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb “interviewed” Larry Nichols, chairman of Devon Oil, on stage. Nichols has personally and through the company PAC doled out a million dollars to politicians and Lamb joked about knowing “who pays the bills.”

Rick Perry, until recently governor of neighboring Texas, suggested Obama didn’t understand or respect American oil and gas as a national security issue. He promised he would flood Asia with liquefied natural gas to send a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin: “If you’re going to use energy as a weapon, the United States is going to deploy the largest arsenal.” The conference offered the crowded field of candidates a chance to road-test messages that might resonate enough to win them not just the first straw poll in the Republican cycle but a place at a Fox News debate in August.

Security was the obvious first choice. “We got this delusional thinking on the left that ‘criminals will obey our gun laws,’” Perry said. “The rest of us subscribe to reality-based thinking, where the best defense against crime is an armed citizen.”

Walker, the first speaker, rolled up his shirtsleeves and ripped Obama for the problems in the Middle East, and promised a more robust response to what he and the other speakers insisted on “calling by its name—radical Islam.”

Not one of the candidates left the podium without first professing unwavering support for Israel. Walker referenced a recent trip to the Holy Land, and said, “To a person, they are distraught about this Iran deal. Carly Fiorina took it further, promising: “In my first day in the Oval Office, there are two phone calls I would make. The first would be to Bibi Netanyahu.” The second, she promised, would be to Iranian leaders, to tell them to submit to full nuclear facility inspections or face more sanctions.

After ISIS and Iran, the candidates talked economy and the middle class—key themes, according to GOP pollster Ed Goeas. “The bottom line is, when you ask voters are you upper, middle or lower income, 70 percent of voters call themselves middle class,” he said. “The middle class feels the rich get special programs, the poor get help and the middle class gets the bill.”

Pam Pollard, a conference organizer and chairwoman of the Oklahoma Federation of Republican Women, declined to name her favorite candidate, but said social issues take a backseat to national security these days. “Do we have major social issues we cannot live with? I’d love to see Roe v. Wade overturned, but it’s not affecting my family,” she said. “Until we secure America, we are living with uncertainties.”

In the end, the candidates, or their speechwriters, understood that the crowd wanted more story than policy. Carson’s life arc resonated, but all the candidates offered up personal anecdotes: Christie reminisced about 9/11 and how his wife worked two blocks from ground zero and was out of reach for six hours; Bush described how he fell in love “at first sight” with his future wife when he was a teenager; Graham talked about his parents’ deaths within two years of each other while he was in college, and how he and his 14-year-old sister lived off their Social Security benefits; and Janet Huckabee recalled how Mike “thought he was gonna be the fifth Beatle” but sold his beloved guitars to buy her a washer and dryer when they were first married, and how he stood by her during a bout of spinal cancer.

Whether the straw poll means anything in the long run or is just a bit of fun remains to be seen. The political experts doubt non-politician Carson’s viability.

Some attendees called the surfeit of candidates a sign of Republican vibrancy, but others wondered how the party would cull the still-growing herd without a civil war over money and debates. Professional politicos worried that a Fox News Channel decision to limit debates later this year to candidates above a certain support level could banish the sole female and black candidates—a “bad visual,” to be sure.

Steve Curry, a longtime state Republican foot soldier and national convention delegate, said the crowded field is “a blessing and a curse.” He predicted multiple candidates would still be viable through the fourth or fifth state primary: “We gotta make up our minds. I think most people have narrowed it down to two or three already. I once had to organize a debate for 12 congressional candidates for one seat, and I know it’s not easy as a consumer of information to get enough information in that situation to make a decision.”

The conference gave attendees the opportunity to do just that. College kids in blue T-shirts reading STRAW POLL roamed the halls with iPads, exhorting people to vote. The end result was Carson with 25.4 percent,  Walker at 20.5 and Cruz with 16.6. Christie and Perry came in fourth and fifth with around 5 percent each.

The outcome probably reflected the fact that top tier candidates Cruz and Rubio didn’t show up in person. Cruz beamed in one of his trademark masterly speeches on video, hammering more social themes than some of the other speakers, but the personal touch was left to those who showed up, including Walker in shirtsleeves and Carson, who had been scheduled to speak on Saturday but switched in as the dinner headliner.

The soft-spoken doctor stole the night with his message that the underclass—to which he had once belonged—needed something other than money. Carson described a Detroit boyhood as the son of a single mother who herself was one of 23 siblings, a woman with a third-grade education who managed to mother two boys who became successful doctors. The audience left the hall looking stunned and satisfied, repeating the phrase “incredible story” on the way out.

“I always enjoy coming to Oklahoma, because there are a lot of people here with common sense,” Carson said. “That’s getting to be a rarity these days. But you see America is still the land of dreams.” He said Great Society programs since the 1960s had spent $17 trillion to $19 trillion on the poor without solving the problems of poverty. “When something doesn’t work, what do stupid people do? They say we didn’t do it enough!” Those who object, those “with common sense,” he said, had been “beaten into submission.”

Carson continued: “I don’t want to withdraw aid from anyone who really needs it. What I want to do is get rid of the system that creates dependency in people who actually have the ability to sustain themselves.”

The audience exploded in applause.