Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Ben Carson Is Taking Iowa One Church at a Time

Close ties with evangelical voters, fostered through book sales, and a Tea Party campaign manager fuel Carson's grassroots effort.

John McCormick McCormickJohn
November 3, 2015 — 5:00 AM EST

Ann Selzer Says Iowa’s Trying On Carson and Trump

On the Seventh Day, Ben Carson's campaign in Iowa works especially hard.

Sunday church services and the Sabbath are prime time for Carson's operation, as the retired neurosurgeon tries to build a campaign infrastructure worthy of his front-runner status in the lead-off presidential nominating state.

If he's here on a Sunday, he's going to be speaking at a pulpit, I can guarantee you that,” said Ryan Rhodes, Carson's state director in Iowa.

“Our people tend to look like the average caucus-goer.”
Ryan Rhodes, Iowa director for Carson campaign

Even if Carson is elsewhere on a Sunday, Rhodes and other campaign workers and volunteers are visiting churches to prospect for volunteers and supporters ahead of the Iowa caucuses, now just three months away. “We do Wednesday nights, too,” he said of the weeknight gatherings common in some churches.

Often assisting with the church-recruitment effort is Carson's logo-wrapped campaign bus, which travels nationwide with its own schedule and Twitter handle, @healerhauler. Besides chatting with church-goers about Carson, volunteers and campaign workers sometimes hand out bumper stickers or beverages in church parking lots.

It isn't a new technique, but it's one that's crucial to Carson's campaign. A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll in mid-October showed Carson was able to surpass billionaire Donald Trump in the state and move into first place, in part because he's begun to lock up the state's evangelical Christians. In that poll, 42 percent of those who said they are likely to attend a Republican caucus identified themselves as evangelicals.

Carson's growing strength with the group presents a problem not only for others who want to compete in that lane, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, but for any Republican candidate trying to put together a victory in a state where grassroots organization is key. While Carson is relatively new to politics, he's got an advantage when it comes to evangelical voters: His numerous books have been on the shelves of religious book stores in Iowa and elsewhere for years.

Andy Cable, a member of the Republican Party of Iowa's state central committee, said Carson and Trump appear to be the best organized in the state so far. Still, he cautioned that there's still time for others to do a better job of building out. “It will be a fourth-quarter game and everything will break in January,” he said.

Ryan Rhodes, Iowa director for Ben Carson's Republican presidential campaign, in his office in suburban Des Moines.
Photographer: John McCormick/Bloomberg

Rhodes commands Carson's Iowa campaign from an office in a strip mall in suburban Des Moines. Some of the walls are still pink from when the space housed a Mary Kay cosmetics dealership, while one in the room where Rhodes has set up shop has a western-themed, three-dimensional mural that includes a large buffalo and dates to a time when the space was home to an insurance agency.

On a nearby whiteboard in his office, there's the traditional countdown of the number of days until the caucuses. There's also a passage from the Bible, Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

Rhodes' background is a bit unusual for a senior campaign operative. The 33-year-old former Tea Party leader studied turf grass management at Iowa State University, puttered in golf course management, worked as a chef, unsuccessfully ran for the Iowa legislature in 2008, and sold cars. In 2011, he made national headlines and boosted his credentials among Tea Party supporters by confronting President Barack Obama after an event in Decorah, Iowa, where Rhodes asked the nation's leader about reports that Vice President Joe Biden had called the limited-government activists “terrorists.”

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