Team Carson: Don’t count us out

Team Carson: Don’t count us out

Emboldened by support that has propelled retired neurosurgeon Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonWhite House slams pastor leading Cabinet Bible studies for linking homosexuality, coronavirus Conservative group hits Trump for coronavirus response in new ad On The Money: Senate sends coronavirus aid package to Trump | Lawmakers race to draft next stimulus | Stocks close with steep loses | Treasury offers guidance on deferring tax payments MORE to No. 2 in the polls, the political newcomer’s campaign is pushing back against the narrative that he isn’t a true threat to win the GOP presidential nomination.

The campaign and its supporting super-PACs, which have seen increased fundraising since Carson’s well-received performance in the Aug. 6 Fox News debate, are poised to go after major donors, roll out policy positions and employ a ground game to keep up the momentum.

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“The press has never taken him seriously,” said Terry Giles, who briefly managed Carson’s campaign but left to coordinate fundraising with pro-Carson super-PACs. “Even up until three days ago, they’d talk about everyone but him. Now they have no choice but to talk about him.”

In national polls, Carson has rocketed into second place, trailing only businessman Donald Trump. While Trump still holds a substantial lead, Carson is the only other candidate with nationwide poll numbers in the double digits, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

But the poll that seems to have announced Carson’s arrival was a Des Moines Register-Bloomberg survey released over the weekend showing Carson catching Trump in Iowa, where both men captured 23 percent support. No other candidate is even in the same ballpark.

In addition, a Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday showed that Carson is the most popular candidate in the field by far, with 68 percent of Republicans viewing him favorably and only 14 percent having a negative view of him.

The new polling comes on the heels of a steady but understated showing at the first Republican debate. Carson’s showing didn’t earn him much media buzz at the time, but polls released shortly after found that many conservatives viewed Carson’s performance as one of the strongest on stage.

Still, many Republicans and political observers remain skeptical that Carson, who has never before run for public office, can compete in fundraising and campaign infrastructure with the more experienced candidates or survive the scrutiny that will come with his rise in the polls.

Carson’s campaign said it raised $6 million in August, more than twice what it collected in July.

“August was a record-breaking month,” said Mike Murray, president and CEO of the firm handling Carson’s small-dollar donations. “The initial boom came right after the debate in the early part of the month and it has held throughout.”

Small-dollar donations have been Carson’s bread and butter: He raised more than $10 million in the second quarter with the average gift amount around $50. But Murray said he’s now seeing the “top end” grow as well, as more donors are willing to give the legal maximum.

Still, Carson ended the second quarter in the middle of the pack in terms of cash raised directly by his campaign, and he trails several candidates badly in the money raised by the outside groups that now dominate the campaign finance landscape.

There are two super-PACs competing for money to support Carson’s efforts, and neither has yet been able to attract the kind of big-dollar donors who are boosting the efforts of former Gov. Jeb Bush (Fla.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others.

One super-PAC, the 2016 Committee, is focused on building out Carson’s ground game. The group raised about $6 million in the first half of the year.

“The first debate removed the argument that he’s not a serious candidate,” said Bill Saracino, the national director of the PAC. “Now with that argument off the table, we’re actively in pursuit of big donors, and the presumption is that the six- and seven-figure checks will be more accessible.”

That hasn’t happened yet. One Vote, a pro-Carson super-PAC that says it’s more focused on TV and digital media buys, only raised about $100,000 in the second quarter.

But Andy Yates, executive director for the group, says interest in Carson is soaring and that the group is on the verge of reeling in a big-money donor.

“We’ve been in discussions with high-wealth individuals who are ready to contribute very significant resources,” Yates said. “I think we’ll see it come through in a big way. We feel like we’re headed where we need to be, and everything we planned in terms of paid advertising will be on par with these other candidates.”

Giles, the former campaign manager who left with the intention of starting his own pro-Carson super-PAC, says he’s instead now focused on working with the existing groups to make sure that they’re on the same page and that their interests align with Carson’s.

On the ground, too, Carson’s political team members are talking a big a game.

They point to his crowd sizes, which are second only to Trump on the Republican side. At one stop in Phoenix last month, 12,000 supporters turned out for a Carson campaign rally. He drew 3,000 people at an event in Arkansas and 2,000 at a stop in the rural southwest corner of Colorado.

Carson’s team also touted its four regional directors and paid staffers in all four of the early-voting states, as well as in New York and Pennsylvania. They say Carson has volunteers in every state, as well as in every county in Iowa.

A policy rollout, including a fiscal proposal with details on how Carson would balance the budget and reduce the federal deficit, is coming shortly.

“In one week, Dr. Carson started in Harlem, then campaigned in New Hampshire, Las Vegas and Reno. From there, he went to the state fair in Des Moines, was off to Jackson Hole for a fundraiser and visited the mine spill in Durango where 2,000 people showed up,” said Ed Brookover, a senior strategist for the Carson campaign.

“That night was when 12,000 people showed up in Phoenix, and the next day he visited the southern border. Tell that to anyone who doesn’t think we have the ability to pull this off.”

Republicans on the ground in Iowa say Carson is well-positioned to build on his early success.

“He’s had people on the ground here and organizing for nine months going door to door and getting the word out through social media,” said Doug Gross, who served as Iowa finance chairman for the campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. “The key for him is to convert interest into caucusgoers. They’re going about it the right way, and certainly doing a heckuva lot better job than Trump is.”

Now, Carson will have to endure the scrutiny that comes with a move to the top in the polls. He has in the past struggled with the spotlight, stoking controversy by making outlandish statements or struggling in some policy areas.

But Carson’s supporters maintain that he’s improved dramatically as a candidate, and that his quiet disposition and extreme calm will make him the perfect foil to Trump’s bombast. 

Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer has dubbed Carson the “anti-Trump,” a “sleeper” candidate and described him as a “gentle, soft-spoken family doctor.”

Said Brookover: “As nice as he is, Dr. Carson is very competitive and believes he can win. Ask anyone he’s played with pool with.”