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Homeschool advocates in Iowa are still divided on 2016 — for now

Homeschooling advocates in Iowa are a top prize for candidates chasing grassroots conservative support in the lead-up to the caucuses.
Abigail Gustoff listens to her mom Sara read while home schooling at the kitchen table in in their home in Des Moines, Ia., April 18, 2013. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Abigail Gustoff listens to her mom Sara read while home schooling at the kitchen table in in their home in Des Moines, Ia., April 18, 2013. 

AMES, Iowa— As the oldest of six homeschooled children, Caleb Burke is a lot like his father, David.

The 17-year-old from Boone is thinking about starting a window-washing service modeled after his dad's business. Both father and son love the World War II survival novel Unbroken — but not the movie. And both have a passionate faith in God.

But while David has been deciding between a handful of presidential candidates, including Dr. Ben Carson and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Caleb is set on caucusing for Ted Cruz.

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"It was exciting," said a beaming Caleb as he flipped through his phone, recalling the first time he met the Texas senator. "I got a selfie with him!"

Like Caleb and his father, the powerful bloc of homeschooling advocates in Iowa remains divided over which Republican candidate best represents their community. And it's unclear if any one candidate will be able to effectively unite these voters by the time the caucuses are held on Feb. 1.

The "Kentucky Bluegrass" of Grassroots

Homeschooling advocates in Iowa are a top prize for candidates chasing grassroots conservative support in the lead-up to the caucuses.

There are an estimated 25,000-30,000 homeschool students in Iowa today. (Due to a recent law, Iowa's Department of Education stopped keeping official records after the 2012-2013 school year.)

Though many advocates are quick to point out that homeschoolers are not single-issue voters, religious liberty and opposition to Common Core are often cited as rallying cries.

"Homeschooling is ultimately about freedom," said David Fischer, a homeschool parent who is an Iowa co-chair for Sen. Rand Paul's campaign.

And the community is known for its robust and reliable turnout in the all-important caucuses.

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"In the caucus state, it's very much about a grassroots turnout effort. And among the grassroots in Iowa, the homeschoolers are like the Kentucky Bluegrass of the grassroots," explained Bill Gustoff, a homeschool parent and former legislative liaison for the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators (NICHE).

The group's power was perhaps best exemplified in 2008, when the homeschool community—largely made up of evangelical Christians—rallied around eventual GOP caucus winner Gov. Mike Huckabee.

"I have trouble thinking of any homeschooler I know who didn't caucus for Mike Huckabee [in 2008]," recalled Gustoff.

Four years later, the community's support initially splintered between Rep. Michelle Bachmann, then-caucus winner Sen. Rick Santorum, and Rep. Ron Paul. Come caucus night, many evangelical homeschoolers did shift to Santorum, although the tide wasn't as dramatic as it was in the previous cycle.

"It wasn't quite as strong as how they came out of the woodwork for Huckabee in '08," said Jamie Johnson, a homeschool parent and senior director for Rick Perry's most recent presidential campaign.

Now, less than 90 days out of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, consensus still seems far from reach.

No "Favorite Son"

"There is no favorite son of the Iowa homeschool community. None. They're all divided," said Johnson.

Most homeschooling leaders in and outside of the Hawkeye State—even those with a horse in the race—tend to agree with Johnson's assessment.

Drew Zahn, a homeschooling father and spokesperson for influential Christian conservative group The Family Leader, noted that there is "still a significant difference of opinion and preference on the candidates" among Iowan homeschoolers.

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The Family Leader itself has yet to formally back any candidate, though the organization plans to do so by the end of the month.

Barb Heki, a prominent leader in the Iowa homeschooling community who supported Huckabee eight years ago and endorsed the former Arkansas governor again this year, said the community has not yet united.

"Not at all. [Homeschoolers] are spread out among a lot of candidates and that's going to have to whittle down to one major candidate," she explained.

In fact, one only needs to look closely at the campaigns themselves to see how split (and politically valued) the homeschooling community is in Iowa.

Each of the Cruz, Carson, Jindal, Huckabee, Paul and former Perry Iowa operations have senior advisers, chairs, or state directors with strong homeschooling backgrounds and networks. Santorum is a well-known homeschool father himself.

"I think it's smart to essentially put these [homeschool] ambassadors on various campaigns," commented conservative Christian radio host Steve Deace, who endorsed Ted Cruz earlier this summer. "A really smart play actually."

Can anyone rally the homeschool community?

The divisions among this formidable but fractured segment of Iowa voters has not deterred 2016 candidates from vying for their support.

Cruz, Jindal and Huckabee all spoke at the first annual National Religious Liberties Conference last week to an audience of 1,700 in Des Moines. Staff at the event estimated that well over half of the crowd were homeschoolers.

The same three candidates —and Santorum — also attended NICHE's "Homeschool Day" at the Iowa Capitol back in April.

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Cruz has hired Vicki Crawford, a prominent homeschool leader in Iowa, to be a part of his paid staff this cycle. Crawford spent this most recent conference tending to Cruz's father, Pastor Rafael Cruz, who made a strong appeal to homeschoolers in the crowd during an hour or so of prepared remarks.

"If you have kids in public school and you can't afford to put them in a private Christian school, you only have two choices. You either take the time to deprogram them from all the garbage they are being fed from Common Core, or you take them out of school and you homeschool them," said Pastor Cruz, who was rewarded with some of the most forceful applause of the gathering.

The Paul campaign confirms it is "working with massive amounts of homeschoolers," many of whom supported his father Ron Paul in 2012. (Not long after the elder Paul's final run for president, he released his own homeschool curriculum that is popular in certain libertarian-leaning households today.)

Over the weekend Jindal, who has been one of the most frequent visitors to the Hawkeye State this cycle, received an endorsement from Shane Vander Hart, a vocal homeschooling father and popular Christian conservative blogger in Iowa.

Carson's path is a bit more complex

Though he has only been to the state twice in the past two months and has not attended any of the large homeschooling events in Iowa this year, some argue that Carson has a stronghold of the community's backing because his books are sometimes included in homeschool curricula.

But homeschool leaders inside and outside of Iowa say that theory is overstated.

"That's just not true. That's not even close to true," said Mike Farris, the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association. "It's not a curriculum-worthy book. It's just not."

Anecdotally, these leaders agree that its more likely that Carson's story is known, admired and shared in many circles of evangelical Christians, without it being used in actual homeschool study.

In fact, both the Carson campaign and his super PAC work hard to put Carson's book in the hands of Iowans every chance they get.

Caleb and his father for example recall reading "Gifted Hands" and seeing the movie for pleasure a number of years ago, but couldn't think of anyone in their "Classical Conversations" homeschooling group who would have used either in study.

One person who said he had used Ben Carson's books in his children's curriculum? Cruz surrogate Steve Deace.

"We used Ben Carson's book in our home schooling curriculum," the radio host said but noted quickly with a laugh, "And I'm supporting Ted Cruz."

Like Son, Like Father

Perhaps any hope of unity among this coveted demographic will come down to the long-held conventional wisdom in Iowa: You have to be here on the ground in person to meet voters, shake their hands, and ask for their vote.

Caleb Burke made sure to hear all of the presidential candidates this past Friday at the National Religious Liberties Conference.

His mother, his father, his two brothers and his three sisters joined him in the afternoon to connect with friends in the community and to hear Cruz and his father speak.

The whole family noted how much better it was to actually hear and see the candidates in person rather than on TV. And with that, Caleb and his father David inched closer to one more similarity.

"I'm leaning strongly toward Ted Cruz now," David admitted.

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