Ralph Reed's Comeuppance

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Ralph Reed, candidate for the Republican nomination for Lt. Governor of Georgia, surrounded by his family during his concession speech

As a political operative Ralph Reed had a golden touch. Four years ago in Georgia, as chair of the Republican Party, he orchestrated the first GOP sweep of state government in 100 years, helping to knock out an incumbent U.S. Senator in the process. In his heyday, as head of the national Christian Coalition, he solidified conservative family values into a formidable voting bloc that helped Republicans take over Congress in 1994, and along the way consulted with half a dozen presidential candidates.

But as a candidate for public office himself, in this year's race for Georgia Lieutenant Governor, Reed's squeaky clean, boy-next-door image came back to haunt him. After he started out a year ago with a huge lead in both the polls and fundraising over his relatively unknown opponent, Reed's connection to the Jack Abramoff congressional lobbying scandal unmasked the candidate who built his career on the issue of values as one who apparently had his own questionable values. And so it was that Tuesday Reed lost both his party and his religious conservative base in a humbling Republican primary defeat, losing by nearly 20 points to Casey Cagle, a state senator from Hall County.

"In a word, it was Abramoff," says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. "This finishes Reed as a candidate for public office. He might be able to go back to working behind the scenes or in connection with some lobbying organization."

Even though his image, fundraising and lead in the polls slowly unraveled over the past several months, pundits still thought the 45-year-old Georgia native had a chance to make it a close race. But when the disappointing results from suburban Cobb County, a crucial conservative Republican stronghold for Reed, came in less than three hours after the polls closed, Reed conceded, already facing a 56% to 44% deficit with less than half the precincts counted.

In the end, voters punished Reed for the same kind of duplicitious political behavior he used to build campaigns against. As revelations from the Abramoff case slowly leaked out, it appeared that as a lobbyist and consultant, Reed had urged his base to fight tribal casino gambling and state lotteries with the help of $5 million from competing gaming interests in four southern states. "I would have voted for Reed, but it really bothered me that he took that money for casinos. I gave Cagle a chance," said Mike Craig, 46, a voter in Cobb County.

Reed's evasive, constantly shifting explanations didn't help his cause. Reed first denied he used gambling funds for his lobbying efforts, then stated he didn't know the source of the funds, then said had he known he would not have accepted them, which ran counter to e-mails between him and Abramoff released by the U.S. Senate's Indian Affairs Committee. Then a week before the election, a tribe in Texas filed a federal lawsuit alleging fraud against the pair. In TV ads Reed continued to blame the "liberal media," but for long stretches in the campaign he held no events and did no press interviews. Even a campaign appearance by Rudy Giuliani didn't help.

The Reed faithful — at least what was left of them — thought he had been hung out to dry by his former friends. "I believe there's a real tight network with the Senators," said Stan Coates, 52, of Marietta in Cobb County, referring to the nearly two dozen GOP lawmakers who had publicly urged Reed to step down during the campaign. Referrring to Abramoff, he added: "To be guilty by association, people listen to those lies and hang onto them," said Coates.

As for Reed's future, he's still the owner of the consulting and lobbying firm Century Strategies, though landing work for a political candidate could be tricky this season if Abramoff talks or Reed is called before Congress. But a campaign staffer said that possibility hasn't stopped Reed from trying to line up work. "He's working it. He's working it harder now," said a campaign staffer.

When he conceded defeat, Reed addressed about 100 faithful for only five minutes, and quickly left the hotel ballroom, noting that Election Day was also his 19th wedding anniversary and striking a chord for party unity. "Job number one is to work for Governor [Sonny] Perdue's re-election..." Undaunted by his defeat, Reed still had the audacity to trumpet the same signature issue that had been his undoing. "It was a positive campaign about the issues; about fiscal responsibility, about improving our schools through charter and choice, and about strengthening our values... Stay in the fight, don't retreat and our values will win in November." Even if his values, of course, had already lost in July.