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DES MOINES, Iowa – Cary Gordon isn't a political operative, a top dollar donor or an elected official. But that hasn't stopped Jeb Bush's team from already reaching out as the 2016 Republican presidential campaign revs up in Iowa.
Gordon is a well-known evangelical Christian pastor with a church in Sioux City that can draw 600 people on Sundays and a voice that echoes far beyond the pulpit. Gordon backed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in the 2012 GOP field, sending out text messages, tweets and a video announcement to deliver his message.
In some states, big city ward leaders or union bosses are the go-to guys to deliver votes. When it comes to Iowa's Republican caucuses, evangelical pastors are kingmakers, with sway over an important bloc of participants. Long before the campaign heats up, leading ministers are showered with personal attention from likely candidates, and they can negotiate their policy positions on issues such as gay rights and abortion.
With the power comes perks.
For example, Brad Sherman, pastor at Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, was among a group of Iowa pastors invited on a complimentary trip to Poland and London in late 2014 with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is considering a 2016 race.
"Just being in Iowa and being involved opens certain doors," said Sherman, who went on a trip to Israel with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Both were funded by evangelical leader David Lane, who is working to grow the number of conservative Christian voters in early voting states.
Going into 2016, the power of the Iowa pastors is considered indisputable. Four years ago, pastors united behind Santorum, who eked out a victory in the caucuses and saw his stature rise in the crowded field. Back in 2008, evangelical support was part of Huckabee's winning coalition.
"In our church, the last four cycles we've probably had almost 100 percent of our people vote," said Bill Tvedt, pastor at Jubilee Family Church in Oskaloosa, who has not endorsed a candidate. "In our local county, we control the Republican party pretty much — our church and another church."
Lots of the potential 2016 GOP candidates are wooing pastors.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Paul have appeared before groups of religious conservatives. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks frequently about being a pastor's son. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father is a pastor, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal recently addressed a gathering of pastors in Des Moines.
"I believe our country is in crisis and I think it's incumbent on people of faith to stand up and defend our values," said Cruz, who was joined by his father, Rafael, at the event.
Iowa pastors have been politically active for years, but became more involved after the Iowa Supreme Court's 2009 decision allowing gay marriage, which incensed many. Their turnout machines are formidable, with more than half of the 2012 caucus participants identifying as evangelical or born-again Christian, according to exit polls.
"They provide a voice in the pulpit," said Jamie Johnson, a pastor from Story City who is working for Perry.
Said Gordon, executive pastor at Cornerstone World Outreach, "I teach our people that civic responsibility is a part of our Christian heritage."
Some pastors arrange buses for people to attend the Iowa Straw Poll, the summer event viewed as an early test of campaign organizations.
So far this year, a chief concern for some pastors is that there may be too many good options.
"I'm concerned that the truly conservative base will get split up so many ways and we'll end up with a moderate," said Sherman.
Still, some Iowa pastors think faith leaders should not be working to help candidates.
Judy Winkelpleck, the pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, said she identifies as a progressive, but has still gotten outreach from Republican candidates, including an email recently on behalf of Paul.
"I do not believe pastors should endorse candidates. I do believe faith questions should be raised so people can make their own political decisions," said Winkelpleck.
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