Former Christian Coalition (CC) leader Ralph Reed failed in his bid to become lieutenant governor of Georgia in a primary election July 18.
Reed, 45, was defeated by Casey Cagle, a state senator, 56 percent to 44 percent.
Reed’s loss was a stunning fall from grace for the former hardball political operator and telegenic whiz kid who led TV preacher Pat Robertson’s CC from 1989-97. During his tenure, Reed built the organization into the nation’s most prominent Religious Right group. At its peak, the group had a membership of 400,000 with a budget of $25 million per year.
Reed left the Coalition to start a political consulting group near Atlanta and later became chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and an adviser to President George W. Bush’s campaigns. When Reed announced his candidacy 18 months ago, he was considered a shoo-in. Political analysts believed Reed’s ability to mobilize conservative Christian voters in the state would enable him to bulldoze Cagle and triumph in the general election as well. Some even speculated that Reed would then run for governor and finally president.
But Reed’s campaign hit a serious speed bump when his ties to disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff were exposed. Documents showed that Reed had been paid more than $5 million by two Louisiana Indian tribes that owned casinos. The tribes were clients of Abramoff and wanted to fend off attempts by other tribes to establish competing casinos.
Reed worked with Abramoff to mobilize conservative Christians to oppose the new casinos – without telling them that established gambling interests would benefit. Reed claimed he was not aware that the forces of legalized gambling were behind the money, but the explanation did not wash. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the day after the election, “e-mails showed that Abramoff informed Reed of the money’s origins several times.”
As the story grew and Abramoff was arraigned (and later pled guilty to three felony counts of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion) Reed’s candidacy went into a nosedive. Refusing to apologize, he stuck to his story that he had been duped, even as more evidence surfaced that highlighted Reed’s involvement in a variety of sleazy deals.
Many conservative Christians abandoned him, and his fund-raising plummeted. By the end of the campaign, Reed had to lend his own campaign $500,000. Cagle, meanwhile, blanketed the state with television ads blasting Reed for his hypocrisy.
Reed tried to regain his footing by marshaling conservative spokespersons and Republican leaders to his side. Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity appeared at one Reed rally, and Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York, made an appearance for him. Reed also won support from Zell Miller, former Georgia governor and U.S. senator.
Just days before the election, Reed received another blow: The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas filed a lawsuit against Reed and Abramoff, charging them with illegally lobbying Texas lawmakers to shut down the tribe’s casino.
A post-election analysis of the vote by the Journal-Constitution found that many of Reed’s initial supporters grew dissatisfied with him as the bad news mounted and decided to sit out the election. The newspaper noted that other candidates tied to the Religious Right lost races as well.
“The moderate wing of the Republican Party showed up, but the pro-Ralph Reed side of the party went to the beach,” said Rusty Paul, a former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. “It had an impact all up and down the ticket.”
But some conservative Christians stuck with Reed until the bitter end. On election night, Sadie Fields, head of the state CC unit, told the Journal-Constitution, “I’m obviously disappointed. The state lost an opportunity. But he will be back. He has far too much to offer.”
Others disputed that prediction.
“We’ve witnessed the final implosion of Ralph Reed,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.