CHICKASHA — A consummate salesman, Kevin Stitt seems to effortlessly exude charisma and confidence as he tries to close the most important sales pitch of his life.
The 45-year-old Jenks resident relies on a mix of self-deprecating humor, personal antecedes and horror stories about the current plight of the state. He’s selling his experience — or as he frequently and proudly proclaims, a lack of it — in an effort to woo Oklahoma voters.
The Republican gubernatorial nominee continues to embrace his political outsider status. The millionaire businessman is banking that voters are fed up with politics as usual and the traditional “political elites,” and ready for a CEO with no state governing experience to shake things up.
“I’m going to lead Oklahoma to change,” he said. “It’s not going to be more of the same with me. I’m going to lead differently. (With) the career politicians, you’re not going to get anything different. We’re going to be in the same situation eight years from now.”
And now that he won a bruising primary, Stitt likes to joke that people suddenly return his phone calls.
“Nobody gave me much of a shot,” Stitt said.
From long shot to legit
Friends, though, say they can’t remember the last time Stitt has lost — at anything. They describe him as laser-focused when he’s set a goal.
That current objective is to beat Democrat Drew Edmondson and Libertarian Chris Powell at the November ballot box and begin the hard work of restoring Oklahoma to a Top 10 state.
Dr. Chad Phillips, who has given Stitt flu shots, first met the candidate at a Bible study. The Tulsa emergency room physician said when his friend of 15 years sets his mind to something, he doesn’t sleep until it's accomplished.
He’s passionate about raising his six children, running his 1,200-employee company, Gateway Mortgage, and making Oklahoma a better place, Phillips said.
“Kevin’s very competitive,” Phillips said. “I know that it pains him, and he takes it personally when he sees Oklahoma is not up there in the Top 10 in health care.”
Friends say Stitt isn’t feigning his interest in people and their ideas. His seemingly unending curiosity and enthusiasm about pretty much everything he encounters is real too. He even spent eight hours in the emergency room shadowing Phillips because he wanted to learn about health care and how it worked.
“He just has a genuine interest in so many things, whether it’s agriculture or sports or medicine,” said Phillips, who spent a recent day on the campaign trail with Stitt, helping chauffeur him.
Stitt said his interests include aviation, unicycling, coaching T-ball and beekeeping. He likes to tell voters about how he founded his company in 2000 with just a computer and $1,000.
These days, he’s temporarily traded in his cleats for impeccably tailored suits or his preferred cowboy boots and blue jeans as he tries to convince voters to choose him and his five-pillar platform.
Oklahoma needs to expand economic growth along with improving education, health, infrastructure and government efficiency, he said.
Stitt opposes raising taxes or expanding Medicaid to fund his ambitious agenda.
Instead, he favors working with federal leaders to find new health care dollars that can come to the state “without the mandates or handcuffs,” and using existing revenue while continuing to grow the economy.
He wants to expand commerce by capitalizing on the state’s central location, its lands, natural resources and tax structure, and believes Oklahoma needs to grow its manufacturing industry.
On a September day on the campaign trail, Stitt’s enthusiasm was unflagging as he spoke about his plans, shook hands with supporters and answered questions.
“It’s going to be very, very close,” he told potential voters over and over while urging them to tell their friends to vote for him.
“And if you do not like me, tell all your out-of-state friends about me,” he joked.
Barbara Chambers, a registered Democrat who lives south of Lindsay, said Stitt won her support.
“I just like him,” she said. “I like what he says. I’m going to support him.”
Chambers and her husband were heading to an appointment in Norman but decided to stop at Stitt's gathering inside a bank in downtown Lindsay, about 50 miles south of Oklahoma City. Inside about a dozen people, some armed with questions, await his arrival.
Teacher pay is important, one man tells Stitt, but Lindsay is a town heavily dependent on oil. There are concerns how new taxes could punish the industry.
Stitt tells him that teachers need to be paid market rate, but Oklahoma industries also need consistency. Oil and gas, in particular, have taken a beating in recent years, he said.
Stitt said he wants to improve public schools so that more students succeed — even if they don’t go to traditional colleges.
He’s particularly interested in the state’s CareerTech programs and ensuring students are better prepared for the workforce. Business leaders have told him there’s a shortage of skilled workers, he said while touring the Canadian Valley Technology Center in Chickasha.
He then held a meeting there that drew a few dozen people.
“My first impression of him was that he’s energetic, and he is an outsider who sees what’s going on in the politics of Oklahoma, and he’s willing to make the changes. He’s willing to listen to people,” said Randy Brindley, a Blanchard resident who also serves as vice chair of the Grady County Republican Party.
Brindley said he’s passionate about constitutional carry and looking for a pro-life candidate who supports voluntarily arming classroom teachers.
He believes he’s found that in Stitt and will be voting for him.
The personal touch
One hallmark of Stitt’s campaign style is intermingling personal stories with his campaign pitch.
He speaks frequently about his wife of 20 years, Sarah, his six children who range in age from 4 to 17 and attend a Christian school, his faith — he’s a nondenominational Protestant — and his upbringing in Norman.
Stitt also tries to use his sense of humor to connect with voters.
He had a group of community bankers laughing as he recounted the day President Donald Trump was supposed to call to congratulate him on his primary win.
He was taking a rare break from campaigning and decided to golf for the first time in nearly two years. His friends agreed that he could keep his ringer on, but on the first green he forgot his phone in the golf cart.
It rang, of course.
“You have never seen anybody, a 45-year-old man sprint faster through the sand trap to go diving into the car to grab a cell phone,” he told the crowd.
Turns out it wasn’t Trump after all — just Stitt’s wife checking in to see if the president had called yet.
When the two men did eventually connect, Trump congratulated him and said he was 1,000 percent backing Stitt’s candidacy. He then told Stitt — don’t take a day off campaigning. Trump said he worked a solid 60 days up to the election and said he believes he won in part because he worked harder than everyone else, Stitt said.
But while he’s happy to have Trump’s endorsement, Stitt said it doesn’t change him.
“I’m just my own person,” he said. “I can’t try to be something that I’m not.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.