For The Frontier

OKLAHOMA CITY — Scott Miller learned early on not to get overly specific with the political statements on the T-shirts he sells.

“Like I wouldn’t put a picture of Obama with a circle around his face and a line through it. Instead, we go with the concept of bragging about what we’e proudest of, like this,” he points to his favorite shirt — “We the People, not you the government” and smiles.

“I feel like what I do qualifies me as the most in-touch man on the street for conservative America,” Miller says.

We’re standing on the exhibition floor of the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, where Miller, an affable, soft-spoken fellow with a receding hairline and smudged glasses, is one of a handful of vendors selling his wares at this week’s Southern Republican Leadership Conference, the conservative pep rally that is arguably the first major mile marker in the long journey to the 2016 presidential election.

Scott Miller poses next to some of the T-shirts he's selling at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City.

Scott Miller poses next to some of the T-shirts he’s selling at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City.

The theme of the convention is “Energizing America,” and the vibe of the day is upbeat, jubilant even.

Earlier, a who’s who of Republican politicians and figureheads paraded across the stage and worked the crowd of more than 2,000 into a cheering, whooping frenzy.

Repeated talking points emerged:

Oklahoma is “the reddest of the red.”

No Oklahoma county voted for Obama in either of the previous two elections.

We must export crude oil.

The economy is in disarray because of Washington’s creeping socialism.

Poor people know that the reason they’re jobless is because of the president.

Obama hates Israel, family values and Main Street; he loves Iran, Common Core and Wall Street.

Most of it was boiler-plate conservative politicking, nothing too extreme (relatively speaking), but there were a few bold assertions, mostly from Rick Santorum, who proclaimed “ISIS was created by Barack Obama” in the first five minutes of his speech.

Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum speaks at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference Thursday.

Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum speaks at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference Thursday.

He then doubled down on his infamous “What a snob” comment from 2012: “For too long, our elites have had this snobbish attitude that everyone has to go to college to be successful.” He announced that he would be unveiling a radical plan for the economy in a few weeks that will “dismantle the IRS as we know it.”

Energy tycoons Harold Hamm and Larry Nichols, whose Continental Resources and Devon Energy flank either side of the Cox Center, both had their moments at the microphone. There was much talk about the importance of using our natural resources for the good of the economy. But there was nary a mention of the connection between wastewater disposal and earthquakes, which Governor Fallin’s office has recently acknowledged as a reality that must be addressed.

Nor did anyone bat an eye when Hamm took the stage, despite the recent reports that he threatened OU over research by the Oklahoma Geological Survey into man-made earthquakes.

But no matter. This is the Republican Party’s party, and everyone seems to be more or less on the same page, including Miller.

“I started getting politically involved right after Obama got elected the first time,” Miller says. “I saw that what I wanted out of my government was less of it. Less government.”

Miller’s newfound sense of political engagement coincided with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010; he even helped found a local Tea Party group in Central Florida. But instead of volunteering for a campaign or getting involved with a SuperPAC, Miller started a small business.

My Liberty Threads is his clothing company specializing in T-shirts adorned with politically charged slogans like “Your political correctness offends me, and I didn’t fight for your freedom so you could vote mine away.”

Responses from the SRLC crowd have been predictably warm. As we’re chatting, little old ladies and big burly men stop to admire his shirts. A few snap pictures. All wear satisfied smiles.

“The designs are geared towards other people who think that government is not the answer,” Miller continues.

Miller sold 1,500 shirts his first year by attending various Tea Party events. At Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in in Washington D.C., Miller waded through the throngs with nothing but a backpack and a few hundred “We the People, not You the Government” shirts. The guerilla sales expedition was wildly successful, and when Miller got back home to Florida he started brainstorming ways to grow his business.

Now, he targets non-political events that happen to appeal to like-minded Americans. Namely, state fairs. He says his most successful event last year was the Tulsa State Fair. He says he’s on track to sell more than 20,000 shirts this year.

Between Thursday’s sales, Miller was able to sneak away to Cox’s Grand Ballroom, where SRLC’s first General Session was held.

Of the potential presidential candidates that spoke Thursday— Rick Santorum, Scott Walker and Rick Perry— Miller is most impressed with Scott Walker. The Wisconsin governor’s notorious clash with teachers’ unions in 2011 resulted in a recall election, which he won. (Miller was in Madison selling T-shirts during the recall election.)

But Miller’s heart lies with another, even more controversial candidate, who will be speaking Friday night.

“I’m kind of a big Ted Cruz fan,” he admits. “From a practicality standpoint, as I travel across America, outside of Texas and here, Cruz seems to have a really bad image because the news has portrayed him as being an obstructionist. And I think it might be hard for him to overcome that. But I’m pulling for him. Of the candidates, he’s the one I like the most.”

The three-day event continues Friday with speeches from presidential hopefuls, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, as well as a “birthday bash” for oilman T. Boone Pickens.