Gaming Out Ben Carson's Fundraising Shakeup

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Carson’s presidential campaign, already beset by staff departures and tumbling poll numbers, lost another top figure Thursday. Dean Parker, the Republican candidate’s finance chair, stepped down after a Politico report on campaign insiders’ frustrations with Parker, including a recent salary bump to a cool $20,000 per month.

This is, needless to say, not a great turn for the Carson campaign, for which fundraising has remained a bright spot even as the doctor’s stature shrinks in the race. He led the GOP field with $23 million raised in the fourth quarter of 2015.

So how to think of the latest move? For that, it’s important to heed the words of that famous analyst of Republican politics, Vladimir Lenin: “When it is not immediately apparent which political or social groups, forces or alignments advocate certain proposals, measures, etc., one should always ask: ‘Who stands to gain?’”

And in this case, Politico reports that Carson is considering appointing Mike Murray, currently a leading Carson adviser and fundraising figure, to fill Parker’s role—though whether that’s an interim or permanent arrangement is unclear. The central questions about Carson’s fundraising all along have been (1) is it sustainable? and (2) why is he plowing so much of it back into fundraising?

Carson’s campaign told me in October that it was necessary to do that to build fundraising lists and to track down the small-dollar donors he’s done so well with. But skeptics view it as a way to line the pockets of the vendors who are doing the direct mail and telemarketing for the campaign. And Murray is closely connected to them—in fact, he’s the president of a firm called TMA Direct. As I wrote in October:

TMA Direct was one of the top vendors to the Carson campaign in the third quarter, along with InfoCision and Eleventy Marketing, two companies based in Akron, Ohio, that have long worked with TMA Direct. Murray was previously treasurer of American Legacy, a PAC affiliated with Newt Gingrich. As Mother Jones noted at the time, American Legacy’s spending in 2013 looked questionable. As of July 15 of that year, it had raised $1.4 million while contributing only $27,500 to actual candidates. The biggest recipient of American Legacy’s cash was InfoCision. TMA Direct also took in about $14,500. American Legacy’s mid-year report for 2015 is even worse. It raised $1.25 million but spent $1.38 million, and gave just $2,500 to candidates.

So what do Parker’s departure and Murray’s elevation mean for the Carson campaign? It’s too early to predict the effect on the fundraising haul (which might drag from Carson’s tanking numbers anyway), but it’s hard to imagine a shift in fundraising strategy away from direct mail and telemarketing now.