In the autumn of 1998, Georgians were jolted from their armchairs by television ads run by a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor with the nicely onomatopoeic name of Mitch Skandalakis. One commercial played what political writer Josh Marshall later described as "the D.W. Griffith card," charging gross incompetence on the part of Atlanta's predominantly black political leadership. Another featured an actor who resembled Skandalakis's opponent, state senator Mark Taylor, shuffling down a hallway at a well-known psychiatric and drug treatment facility near Atlanta. The ads were arresting, but they backfired. Skandalakis got stomped by Taylor, while a surprisingly high turnout among African Americans helped produce a victory for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes and other Democrats running statewide.
The Skandalakis campaign's top consultant was one of Georgia's most famous living sons--Ralph Reed. The former executive director of the Christian Coalition had left the financially troubled organization the previous year and launched a much-ballyhooed political consulting firm based in Atlanta called Century Strategies. The 1998 election cycle was supposed to be Reed's chance to prove that his political skills could stand on their own. But the reputation he developed wasn't the one he had hoped for. Republicans grumbled that his dirty tactics in the Skandalakis campaign were responsible for bringing down the party's entire state ticket. What's more, that campaign didn't seem to be the exception to Reed's modus operandi, but the rule. "Most [of Reed's clients] started out strong," wrote Marshall after the election, "with heavy appeals on moral issues (something Reed strongly advocated), faltered in the stretch, and, finally, resorted to a blizzard of low-ball (sometimes racially tinged) tactics before stumbling toward defeat."
Eight years after this ignominious debut in Georgia electoral politics, there's another controversial Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of the Peach State, whom fellow-Republicans openly fear could produce another disaster for the statewide ticket. His name is Ralph Reed.
If only one person can be said to serve as the incarnation of the conservative coalition that rules America today, it would probably be Ralph Reed. A well-known figure in Republican circles dating back to his early-1980s leadership position in the College Republicans under the tutelage of one Jack Abramoff, Reed skyrocketed to national prominence as the architect of the Christian Coalition, which helped lead conservative evangelical churches into a marriage of convenience with the Republican Party. Nimbly leaving the organization as it encountered legal and financial difficulties, Reed founded Century Strategies. Branching out after his inauspicious 1998 election season, Reed emailed his old mentor Abramoff: "Hey, now that I'm done with the electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts! I'm counting on you to help me with some contacts."
Casino Jack and other friends responded, and Reed's firm made millions, even as its principal kept his hand in among formal Republican politics, playing an unsavory but important role in George W. Bush's 2000 nomination campaign, allegedly running a rumor mill against John McCain in the crucial South Carolina primary. Reed's next move was to get himself elected Republican chairman in Georgia, just in time to get the keys to test-drive a high-tech, state-of-the-art GOP voter-targeting and mobilization system--piloted in Georgia in 2002 and deployed to marvelous effect nationally two years later--and to preside over the best Republican election year since Reconstruction.
But the very associations that fed Reed's rise to power and wealth are now embroiling him in scandal and reviving long-dormant resentments of the once invincible young prince (still only 44) in Republican and Christian conservative circles. The slow-motion riot of revelations about Abramoff's complex and corrupt network of lobbying shakedowns has drawn unwelcome attention to Reed, and at the worst possible moment, as he seeks to leap from political operative to elected official. His current campaign--according to his friends, the first step toward an eventual presidential run--is now in deep trouble, its cheery conservative message all but drowned out by the soft clucking of chickens coming home to roost.
Reed has been directly implicated as a key player in campaigns designed to eliminate gambling competition to Abramoff's tribal clients in four states: Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Century Strategies was paid $4.2 million in tribal money by Abramoff and his associates for its "grassroots" lobbying against gambling initiatives in Texas and Louisiana, and received another $1.15 million for similar efforts in Alabama. The Alabama incident has received particular public attention because the Christian conservative groups Reed worked with in that state have broadly hinted that he misled them about the source of the money, and also because another key Washington Republican institution, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, served as a conduit for some of the payments. Norquist is another old ally of Reed's from Abramoff's College Republican crew, and is generally considered the linchpin of the Republicans' Washington financial and ideological operation.
Reed's initial defense was to deny that he knew he was using gambling money to fight gambling. The disclosure of a variety of emails between Reed and Abramoff about the money's source--reflecting, moreover, Reed's avid demands for quick payment for his firm's services--has decisively undermined that defense. (In one email from Abramoff to his chief partner-in-crime, public relations hustler Michael Scanlon, Casino Jack complained that Reed had become "a bad version of us!"). And so, Reed has resorted to the unspecific "apology" for poor judgment, in an attempt to lay the whole saga to rest.
But unfortunately for Reed, his Abramoff problem is giving his many political enemies in Georgia a lot of ammunition. It's bad enough that the state's leading newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is providing consistent and original coverage of the scandal. (AJC reporters Jim Galloway and Tom Baxter recently scored a scoop by examining documents released in the Enron trial, and discovering that Reed, whose firm represented Enron, had gone to considerable trouble to hook up the famous corporate outlaws with Abramoff's services in Washington.) But Reed also has a primary opponent, state senator Casey Cagle, whose campaign is increasingly based on the argument that Reed's presence on the ticket this November could produce a massive Republican defeat.
Cagle is having no trouble feeding on old Republican resentments of Reed. Last year Cagle supporter Bob Irvin, the former Georgia House Republican leader and a former state party chair, published an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution unsubtly reminding Republicans of Reed's role in the disastrous 1998 campaign. But Reed is the object of a deeper, and less publicized, scorn, according to Georgia Republican insiders. During his apparently triumphant 2002 stint as state party chairman, Reed used his position to tilt GOP spending towards the national party's priority of defeating U.S. senator Max Cleland, and away from the presumably doomed gubernatorial campaign of Sonny Perdue. When Perdue won and became Georgia's Republican potentate, he quickly, if quietly, showed Reed the door as party chairman.
Reed's shallow roots and bad rep in Georgia Republican circles are reflected in the unusual and persistent demand of Cagle's supporters that Ralph withdraw from the race (most recently 21 Republican state senators published an open letter urging just that). A recent independent poll showed Reed losing to a generic Democrat (two former state legislators from the Atlanta area, Greg Hecht and Jim Martin, are in the race), and Republicans are increasingly nervous that nominating Reed could nationalize the entire Georgia election and make it easy for Democrats to raise money country-wide to counter Reed's war chest.
Those who trespass against us
Perhaps the most interesting question is whether Reed's old Christian conservative friends will abandon him. There has always been an undertone of concern in these circles about his willingness to place partisan affiliation and even personal status above the passionate substantive interests of cultural conservatives. Outside the Christian Coalition, Reed has often been accused of divided loyalties, at best. And while conservative religious leaders have so far limited their grievances to whispering, rumors are rampant that major conservative evangelical figures in Georgia will soon come out against him.
An early sign of this displeasure came in January, when the Georgia Christian Coalition held its annual meeting in an Atlanta suburb. The event functions as an unofficial straw poll and was clearly a gut-check for the Reed campaign; the former boss was expected to do well, he had to do well. In fact, Reed and his advisors were so concerned about making a good showing that they sent an email out to supporters the week before, offering to pay the $20 fee for the event and to foot the bill for hotel rooms for their out-of-town partisans. This extraordinary effort still produced no more than a draw--observers counted an equal number of Reed and Cagle t-shirts at the event.
Even so, Reed has managed to maintain support from much of the statewide Republican establishment, with the exception of Cagle's legislative base and despite the thinly-veiled hostility of the governor's office. Before the Abramoff scandal broke, Reed was riding so high that he was able to intimidate a potential primary opponent--state insurance commissioner John Oxendine--into withdrawing from the race, even though he led in the polls. Since then, however, Reed's fundraising has declined, national GOP figures are no longer embracing him, and a smell of death is beginning to envelop his campaign.
It goes without saying that if Reed gets indicted as part of a federal criminal-justice action against Abramoff and his associates, he is political toast. And, as the Texas Observer has reported, he must also worry about the possibility of being prosecuted in Texas for unregistered lobbying on behalf of the gambling-fed anti-gambling cause.
In any event, if Reed does go down--in the primary or the general election--it will be a fatal blow to a candidate who was aiming far higher than the relatively powerless office of lieutenant governor of Georgia. But more importantly, it will mean the conservative coalition Reed helped found is crumbling, and it will establish that the Abramoff scandal, and all it represents, has real consequences for those who play the game without a rulebook.