Inside the effort to draft Ben Carson for 2016

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Right after the news broke last summer that a super PAC had been formed to encourage Ben Carson to run for president in 2016, the neurosurgeon was quickly booked for an evening interview with Greta Van Susteren.

As the Fox News host started asking Carson questions, the men behind the new super PAC were getting nervous.

One of the organizers was John Philip Sousa, IV, the great-grandson of the American composer and a conservative activist. Another was Vernon Robinson, a former Republican officeholder who has been involved in politics in North Carolina for decades.

“In the next ten seconds, the draft effort could be over,” Robinson recalls thinking to himself at the time. The ink was hardly dry on the papers he had filed only a week earlier on Aug. 15 with the Federal Election Commission.

“A descendent of John Philip Sousa has registered the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee,” Van Susteren said to Carson. “What’s your response to him?”

“I love John Philip Sousa’s music,” Carson cracked, before getting serious.

“I am not going to interfere one way or another,” he said of the new super PAC. “I believe that God will make it clear to me if that’s something that I’m supposed to do.”

Robinson was jubilant.

“Not only was that a wink,” he said of Carson’s response. “That was a political wink.”

PACs are barred from coordinating with candidates — but Robinson took Carson’s comments as an implicit blessing to continue with his work.

Just six months later, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee announced it had raised almost $3 million dollars. That’s more than double the money raised by the group drafting Hillary Clinton to run for president in their first six months, Robinson pointed out.

The PAC’s goal? Convince the former director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital that he has enough support to join the Republican race for president. They also aim to put in place some political and fundraising infrastructure for Carson if he ultimately pulls the trigger on a campaign.

Carson, 62, has never run for office before. But conservatives rallied around him last year after he famously criticized Obamacare during the National Prayer Breakfast. He made his comments as President Obama sat just a few feet away.

In an interview this week with The Daily Caller, Robinson — a 58-year-old black conservative who lives in Winston Salem, N.C. and serves as the full-time campaign director for the PAC — recalled first learning about Carson from his mother.

“Remember, a whole generation of African-Americans,” Robinson said, “every black parent wanted their sons to be Dr. Carson and their daughters to marry him.”

Carson has written a handful of books, including “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story.” TNT later based a TV movie off that book, with Cuba Gooding Jr. playing the role of Carson.

Robinson said the idea for the pro-Carson super PAC came from Sousa and a few friends. After discussing the roster of potential Republicans who might run in 2016, the group agreed that they thought someone like Carson was capable of defeating Clinton in a general election.

As for why the organizers think Carson is a strong candidate: He could motivate the conservative base, they believe, but is also capable of winning a larger share of the black vote than previous GOP candidates. He can also “calmly and cogently” deliver a conservative message in a way that “every American can understand them,” Robinson argued.

“The current administration has worked very hard in dividing the American people in almost every way possible in the last five-and-a-half years,” Robinson said. “And Dr. Carson may be uniquely qualified in either party to bond with the American people and unify the country.”

Robinson said he recently spoke with a potential donor, who was skeptical of how the PAC would spend its money. “He said, ‘Vernon, how do I know this isn’t a scam?’”

“And I said, ‘well, if this was a scam, I’d be campaigning in southern Florida, southern Texas or southern California.’ The last place on the planet I’d be in December and January is Iowa.”

Yet that’s where Robinson — a veteran, a former city council member and an unsuccessful congressional candidate — found himself for 34 days at the end of last year.

He said the first task of the draft committee is to present Carson with evidence that the American people are “clamoring” for him to run. Robinson and other volunteers are busy doing a petition drive, going to early nominating states like Iowa, and collecting signatures of supporters. So far, more than 300,000 people have signed petitions, he said.

“We send several thousand of those each week to Dr. Carson so that he recognizes that hundreds of thousands of Americans are clamoring for him to run,” he said.

The other tasks, he said, include building a “political organizational cadre” and a fundraising base.

Last year, Robinson said he asked an Iowa Republican if presidential candidates typically attend the midterm caucuses, which took place in January, to rev up support. “They said no. I smiled and said, ‘I’m moving to Iowa.’”

On Dec. 17, Robinson crossed the Missouri-Iowa border in his 2000 Honda Insight. He spent a week in an extended stay hotel, before crashing in different guests rooms of Iowans supportive of the cause.

“We had people carpeting Iowa getting those petitions signed during the caucuses,” he said.

Robinson said they spent $5,000 to buy the contact information for the 77,000 Iowa caucus-goers. The committee then dropped $130,000 worth of mail — four pieces to each household of caucus goers — to generate more buzz. They commissioned a poll in the state, which showed support among Republicans for Carson.

They also bought some billboards in Des Moines and in Cedar Rapids ahead of the January caucuses. And to stir up interest among Carson’s neighbors in Maryland, the group paid for some billboards outside of Baltimore.

During the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month, the draft committee bought the rights to the hotel room keys, which featured Carson, in order to reach conservative activists. They handed out 200 retractable blue “Ben Carson 2016” signs for attendees to hold during his speech.

Carson ended up placing third place in the CPAC straw poll, behind Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. He came in third place again last weekend at the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference poll in New Hampshire.

Robinson said the super PAC plans to hire more staffers. He would like to hire regional political directors to “work the heck out of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.”

Robinson doubted they would use the money for TV ads, at least anytime soon. “TV ads probably aren’t effective because unfortunately you have to pay for everybody who is buying soap. And the population of people buying soap is a lot bigger than the folks who are voting in Republican primaries or attending caucuses,” he said. “It makes a whole lot more sense to target resources.”

Robinson said the super PAC is essentially run off of his laptop, “wherever that happens to be.” They also have office space in Greensboro, N.C.

He said the committee hasn’t gotten much attention in the press. “We’re really the Rodney Dangerfield of draft committees,” he said, explaining that they “get no respect” from most news outlets.

In order to not violate coordination rules, Robinson said: “We don’t interact with Dr. Carson. All we do is send him those petitions.”

But Robinson acknowledged he met Carson once in January, when the super PAC spent $25,000 to purchase a table where Carson would be sitting during a speech at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix. They then held a contest for donors to win a seat at the table.

The arrangement sparked a negative story in the Washington Times about how “independent groups are soliciting [Carson’s] growing fan base for money — all without the doctor’s permission.”

Asked about the draft committee on Tuesday, Carson’s business manager, Armstrong Williams, acknowledged they were worried at first that an outside group could be “exploitive” by using Carson’s name to raise money.

“We since learned that these people are very genuine,” Williams said of the super PAC. “They mean well. They really believe that Dr. Carson is what this country needs. Even though the last thing on Dr. Carson’s mind is running for president, you have to respect that they are willing to spend their time, their resources, canvassing this country.”

“While we may not be connected to it,” Williams said. “We’re not going to do anything to discredit them.”

At that dinner in Phoenix, Robinson said he had a pleasant conversation with the man he has devoted his days to now.

“I asked him if he was enjoying getting all those petitions with phone numbers and email addresses,” Robinson recalled. “He smiled and said, ‘that would be very useful if somebody was running for president.’”

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Alex Pappas