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Republican 2016 Hopefuls Court Iowa's 'Super Volunteers'

The state's most dedicated activists are getting showered with attention.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—The Monday after Easter, 73-year-old Joni Scotter found herself at the hospital for the second time in as many days. The two-time cancer survivor, having just been treated for a skin condition, was about to be hospitalized for three days after a series of tests revealed another problem: kidney failure.

It didn't take long for the well-wishes to pour in from concerned friends, family—and Republican presidential contenders.

Jeb Bush sent flowers and a handwritten note. Ted Cruz passed along flowers as well. Scott Walker mailed a copy of his book. Lindsey Graham tried to call Scotter twice at her home, left messages both times, and then wrote her a personal note. And that was all on top of the Easter lily Chris Christie had given Scotter several days earlier.

Why was one woman receiving all this attention from the GOP's crop of White House hopefuls? Scotter is what's known in Iowa as a "super volunteer," one of a handful of campaign enthusiasts who can be counted on to work tirelessly for whichever candidate she supports. And Scotter's support is still up for grabs.

"All of the candidates, every single one of them, make me smile," said the bubbly Scotter, a resident of Marion. "I could vote for any one of them."

Jimmy Centers, who currently serves as the communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, knows firsthand what Scotter can do for a campaign. During the 2010 election, Centers said Scotter easily outpaced her counterparts—regardless of age—at the GOP's Cedar Rapids office by making more than 20,000 phone calls to voters. "You have delegates and super delegates, and you have volunteers and super volunteers," Centers said.

Even in a campaign that will undoubtedly go down as the most expensive in history, GOP presidential aspirants need the diehard Iowa activists that money can't buy. And so, as these White House contenders build their Iowa operations, they are actively wooing a small group of dedicated volunteers with a history of doing a tremendous amount of work.

It's not simply the unpaid labor these volunteers offer; it's the connections, and the authenticity, that only they can bring. "When I call [voters], they know it's me calling. And you know what? They actually answer," Scotter said. "They kind of tease me. 'Oh, what are you up to now?'"

For the past 20 years, Scotter has spent much of her time volunteering for Republican campaigns in Iowa, from the presidential level all the way down to county supervisor. In 2008 and 2012, Scotter was one of Mitt Romney's most ardent supporters—her now-famous "woot" could be heard at just about any event Romney held in eastern Iowa. During a speech last year at Brigham Young University, Romney called Scotter "my hero."

Without Romney in the race, Scotter isn't sure who she will back in 2016, but she said she is partial to governors. One of those governors, Walker, swung through Cedar Rapids on Friday for a midday rally with Rep. Rod Blum. Scotter had a doctor's appointment that morning and wasn't feeling quite up to par, but she still took the time to attend. Walker's team spotted Scotter, and invited her to meet with the governor and a small group of activists privately after the event for about 20 minutes.

Another Cedar Rapids "super volunteer" was also present at that meeting: Kathy Pearson. Like Scotter, Pearson, a small-business owner who backed Newt Gingrich in 2012, is uncommitted, but generally favors governors. Aside from Walker, Pearson said she has also spoken either in person or over the phone with Bush, Christie, Graham, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, all of whom would love to have her on their team.

"If you're in Iowa, you're involved with politics," Pearson said. But even in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, few are as involved as Pearson, who has worked on political campaigns since 1980. In that time, she has all but mastered the craft of voter-turnout calls. Centers said Pearson learned how to operate three phones at once during the 2010 Branstad campaign, and that he would have to ask her to stop making calls after 9 p.m. to avoid disturbing Iowans too late at night.

Phil Condo, a retired 67-year-old West Des Moines resident, has also left his mark on Iowa Republican politics thanks to his phone-calling prowess. He even received an award from the state party for his efforts during the 2012 campaign. Condo, who has been involved in politics since the 1970s, became such a regular at the state GOP's victory office in Urbandale last cycle that they assigned him his own chair, though others would use it if he wasn't around. "I like to have some things at my post that give me inspiration and entertainment," Condo said.

Condo said he has heard from the camps of several potential presidential candidates (he declined to specify which ones), but that he will likely support Bush in the 2016 caucuses. He said that Annie Kelly, who is in line to serve as the Iowa state director for Bush's all-but-certain campaign, invited him to have lunch with her this week.

"He just pounds out phone calls. He is just a machine," Polk County Republican Party Chairman Will Rogers said of Condo. "You want to have Phil if you're running for president."

Some other of the state's top activists aren't planning to formally team up with a presidential campaign due to roles they have taken on with their local parties, but White House hopefuls still look for them to help out in other ways.

Hamilton County Republican Party Chairwoman Becky Kepler, for instance, opened up her Webster City kitchen on March 6 for a local radio station to conduct an interview with Rick Perry. Afterwards, the two chatted for a while about politics, but mostly about family. Kepler's husband, who was also an active GOP volunteer, died in June of 2014, and the next day would have marked their 45th wedding anniversary.

The following morning, a bouquet of flowers arrived at her door.

"I had tears because I thought they were from my kids remembering Mom and Dad's anniversary," Kepler said. "And then I read the card and I thought, 'Whoa, this isn't from my kids. This is from Rick Perry!'"