The presidential candidacy of Ben Carson, a tea party star who has catapulted into the top tier of Republican contenders, has been rocked by turmoil with the departures of four senior campaign officials and widespread disarray among his allied super PACs.
In interviews Friday, Carson’s associates described a political network in tumult, saying the retired neurosurgeon’s campaign chairman, national finance chairman, deputy campaign manager and general counsel have resigned since Carson formally launched his bid last month in Detroit. They have not been replaced, campaign aides said.
The moves gutted the core of Carson’s apparatus and left the 63-year-old first-time candidate with only a handful of experienced advisers at his side as he navigates the fluid, crowded and high-stakes contest for the Republican nomination.
Carson is a hot commodity on the right-wing speaking circuit and has fast become a leading candidate, winning straw votes at conservative gatherings and rising in public polls.
But his campaign has been marked by signs of dysfunction and amateurism, alarming supporters who privately worry that Carson’s sprawling circle of boosters is fumbling his opportunity. And, they argue, the candidate has been nonchalant about the unrest.
“Every campaign goes through growing pains as it puts together a leadership team that has to work together and live together through the trying times of a presidential election,” said Larry Levy, a lawyer who has worked with Carson.
Two independent super PACs designed to help Carson are instead competing directly with Carson’s campaign for donations and volunteers, while campaign chairman Terry Giles resigned last month with the intention of forming a third super PAC.
Giles said he intends to try to persuade the other two super PACs, called Run Ben Run and One Vote, to cease operations so that all outside efforts can be coordinated through the new group. But with Carson’s brand a galvanizing force on the right, there are potentially millions of dollars to be raised off his name, and the other super PACs are said to be reluctant to shut down.
“They are going after the same small donors, and we’ve simply got to figure this out, or else we are going up against each other the whole time,” Giles said. “I’m planning to sit down with them and explain that.”
Before the exodus, Carson’s campaign was mostly controlled by Giles and conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who for decades has been Carson’s business manager and gatekeeper. Giles’s exit to the super PAC side, where he will be prohibited from directly coordinating with Carson or his campaign, leaves Williams as the candidate’s chief confidant.
“Things happen, man,” Williams said of the changes. “That’s the way life works. You start out with one idea, hoping it all works out, and then you get a better understanding of what needs to happen. Remember, we’re not necessarily a group of political people.”
The overlapping super PACs have confused Carson backers about where to give money. Doug Watts, a Carson campaign spokesman, described Run Ben Run as a rogue outfit: “We spend a great deal of time explaining to our supporters, ‘They’re them; we’re us.’ ”
Watts insisted that “there’s no dissatisfaction” with Run Ben Run’s activities, and he credited the group with helping Carson win a Republican straw poll last month in Oklahoma City after Carson spoke to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
“We had Dr. Carson and two staff people,” Watts said. “We did not spend a dime on the straw poll. But Run Ben Run, unbeknownst to us, made organizational activity there.”
Still, Watts said that the “unofficially sanctioned” super PAC is One Vote and that Carson invites supporters to “make their excess contributions” to that group.
Initially, Giles planned on joining One Vote, but Watts said he “abandoned that plan prior to his resignation and talked about the anticipation of a new organization.”
Watts said that Carson gave Giles his blessing to leave the campaign, noting that Giles sat in the front row at Carson’s May 4 announcement event in Detroit and that the candidate publicly acknowledged Giles’s service as chairman.
Federal election laws require a 120-day cooling off period between someone’s departure from an official campaign and involvement in any super PAC activities.
Leaving with Giles last month were deputy campaign manager Stephen Rubino, a longtime Giles associate, as well as national finance chairman Jeff Reeter and general counsel Kathy Freberg.
Rubino, a part-time lawyer and farmer, longed to return to his estate, Watts said. “He said to me many times personally, ‘I’m not sure I’m cut out for this in Washington, D.C.’ ” As for Freberg, Watts said she grew tired of the political game: “She’s now in Africa on a safari.”
Giles said that Carson believes a lightly staffed campaign would suffice through this summer and fall. “The Carson campaign, that’s now mostly about ballot access, communications, social media, and getting Dr. Carson around the country,” he said. “That’s about it. It’s all part of the plan.”
But Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster who is friendly with Carson’s inner circle, said Carson would need “a strong, in-house campaign team. You can’t off-load everything to a super PAC or onto the shoulders of grass-roots supporters and live off the land. Those are the fundamentals.”
Giles and Rubino have not been replaced, Watts said, because “it seemed superfluous.” Asked whether there were other lawyers advising the Carson operation in Freberg’s absence, he said: “Give me a break. Yeah, there are campaign attorneys coming out of my ears.”
Barry Bennett, a former strategist for Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), will continue to serve as Carson’s campaign manager, largely taking up the duties once delegated to Giles and Rubino. Ed Brookover, a veteran GOP hand, runs the policy shop.
Williams portrayed Carson as a candidate who is still learning the nuances of politics. He said Carson is studying up on issues and is uninterested in campaign mechanics.
On the road, Carson receives hearty receptions, but his acquaintances said he is most content after public events to retreat to a pool table, where he touts the hand-eye coordination that made him a renowned surgeon. He also likes to do brain teasers or play golf.
Carson occasionally drops by his Alexandria campaign headquarters, but his main interaction with staffers is once a week, at 10 a.m. on Sundays, when he participates in a conference call to go over his schedule for the coming week.
“Dr. Carson doesn’t get involved in the minutiae,” Williams said. “You have to understand his personality. He’s informed, but this whole process is new to him, and he’s relying on the judgment of others.”