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Up From Abramoff

Ralph Reed is back.

“God’s not looking for perfect people—there’s only been one perfect person in the history of the human race,” Ralph Reed tells the crowd at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel in Washington. It’s the weekend of September 11, and Reed is holding the inaugural conference for his new Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC), which is aiming to mobilize evangelicals the way the Christian Coalition did in the 1990s. “God’s looking for broken people,” he says, “humble and contrite people.”

“Broken” was once the perfect word to describe Reed’s career. In 2006, his campaign for Georgia’s lieutenant governorship imploded after investigators revealed his work with con man Jack Abramoff. Reed, the choirboy-faced moralist, had been secretly lobbying on behalf of an Indian casino, and the press was quick to write his political obituary. But after Barack Obama swept into the White House on the strength of a high-tech political organizing juggernaut, friends implored Reed—the former executive director of the Christian Coalition and one of the key architects of the GOP congressional takeover in 1994—to get back in the game. As Reed tells his audience at the Mayflower, a phone call from Sean Hannity persuaded him. “I wanted to know that this was not me,” Reed says, “that this was not any ambition of mine. I wanted to know that this was the Lord.” Reed breaks into a sly grin as he recounts Hannity’s response: “Ralph, God is speaking through this phone line right now, and he’s using me to deliver the message.”

It’s not just Hannity welcoming him back to the fold. Although there are only a couple hundred attendees at the event—a fraction of what the Christian Coalition pulled at its peak—many of the brightest stars in the Republican firmament show up to support Reed and regale the crowd. Karl Rove delivers a wonky dissection of Obamacare. Gary Bauer fires a broadside against the planned mosque near Ground Zero. Even conservative journalist Tucker Carlson shows up to warn the crowd that the liberal media is indeed conspiring against them. Carlson’s presence is a surprise given that, when the Abramoff scandal broke in 2006, he ripped into Reed on his show, saying, “Conservatives will be tempted to defend these creeps, and I hope they don’t, because what they did was wrong and it violated conservative principles.” All, it seems, is now forgiven.

Reed has had plenty of practice in recovering from controversy—a pattern that goes back to his college days, when he was fired from the school paper after plagiarizing for a column titled “Gandhi: Ninny of the 20th Century.” That minor setback didn’t deter him from going on to a successful stint as an organizer for the College Republicans. Likewise, after he left the Christian Coalition in 1997, Reed’s initial foray into political consulting was disastrous: One of his early clients, Mitch Skandalakis, lost so badly in his race for lieutenant governor of Georgia that he was accused of dragging down the rest of the Republican ticket. But Reed battled back to become chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and engineered a GOP takeover of the state in 2002. “Ralph’s done this two or three times now,” says Joel Vaughan, a former colleague of Reed’s at the Christian Coalition. “He doesn’t mind getting out of the limelight for a while to prepare for his next advance.” Or, as Reed once told journalist Nina Easton: “Politics isn’t about winning, it’s about surviving. People who don’t understand that get burned out.”

Still, the Abramoff scandal should have been impossible to survive. In 1998, having started a new consulting firm, Century Strategies, Reed wrote an e-mail to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a friend from his College Republican days: “I need to start humping in corporate accounts! I’m counting on you to help me with some contacts.” Abramoff soon hired Reed on behalf of the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, a casino-operating tribe trying to prevent competitors from opening up in Alabama. Over the next four years, Reed’s firm received at least $5.3 million to stir up grassroots opposition to the rival casinos. Reed recruited figures like Gary Bauer, Phyllis Schlafly, and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson to write letters to the Interior Department urging that the new casinos be stopped. All later insisted they had no idea Reed was working for gambling interests.

When the paper trail came to light, Reed was quick to note that nothing he did was illegal. Yet the hypocrisy charges were devastating: Here was one of the titans of the Christian Right grubbing on behalf of a casino. And it turned out that Reed’s firm had also been lobbying on behalf of Enron and pushing to normalize relations with China at a time when evangelicals were bristling over the country’s one-child policy. By 2002, even Abramoff appeared shocked by Reed’s shamelessness, telling an associate: “He is a bad version of us! No more money for him.” As local reporters dug into Reed’s past, Georgia Republicans demanded that he withdraw his bid for the lieutenant governorship, and Reed ended up getting trounced in the primary by a little-known state legislator.

What’s striking, though, is how few conservatives outside of Georgia ever bashed Reed publicly. Some evangelical leaders, like Dobson, were clearly furious at being duped. Yet when a reporter from World, a Christian newsmagazine, tried to get various religious figures to comment on Reed’s lobbying spree, few would. “Most of them felt like Reed was more of a victim—that he was fooled by Abramoff,” says Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who also spoke at Reed’s conference. “Secondly, evangelicals are all about redemption and forgiveness. We believe in second, third, fourth, fifth chances.”

Seasoned operatives like Karl Rove, meanwhile, may take a more coldly practical view of the matter. As long as Reed can be useful to the GOP, scandals can always be shunted aside. At the FFC conference, when I asked Reed whether his past was a hindrance, he pointed out that a lot of people had once thought Newt Gingrich was finished after resigning as speaker of the House. As if to illustrate Reed’s point, Newt was there, too—basking in the rumors that he might run for president in 2012.

But can Reed, in his new incarnation, really help conservatives? Not even his detractors question his brilliance as a political organizer. In 1989, Pat Robertson put Reed in charge of the Christian Coalition, and, within six years, the group had 1.6 million active supporters and a $25 million budget. One study by the University of Akron’s John Green found that evangelical voters organized by the Christian Coalition had tipped a number of close races for the GOP in the 1994 midterm elections. “A lot of those voters were already pretty Republican, but Reed got them to turn out,” says Green.

After Reed departed the Coalition in 1997, the group’s fundraising withered. “For whatever reason, the Christian Coalition didn’t carry on after he left,” says Reed’s longtime friend Grover Norquist. Traditional-values groups like the Family Research Council do little organizing, so there was no group to fill the void. Norquist notes that turnout among faith-based voters has been dwindling ever since 2004—when Reed oversaw the Bush campaign’s successful evangelical outreach effort.

There are two possible conclusions to draw from this. One is that what Republicans and evangelicals have been missing these past few years is the organizing genius of Ralph Reed. The other is that the political landscape has changed in ways that make Reed’s type of organizing obsolete, or at least less relevant than it once was. “Younger evangelicals nowadays are different from those of the Robertson-Falwell generation—they’re less afraid of the way the country’s going, more receptive to gay marriage,” says Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown professor and expert on the religious right. “They’re still conservative, still pro-life. But the Christian Coalition’s message in the 1990s was, look at how scary things will be if we lose. Whereas a lot of evangelical churches these days are growing and feeling less confrontational in their politics.” Perhaps as a result, most of the energy and anger on today’s right is with the Tea Parties, which tend to focus on libertarian concerns like spending and deficits.

So it’s still unclear whether Reed can repeat his success from the 1990s, and the early results—his group says, for instance, that it jacked up evangelical turnout in the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial election, won by Republican Bob McDonnell—aren’t yet widespread enough to support any sweeping verdicts. But even if Reed can’t reclaim his spot atop the Christian Right, that doesn’t mean he’s risking irrelevance. Vaughan, the former Christian Coalition staffer, notes that Reed’s first interest has always been secular politics—you could even call it his main religion. The GOP, moreover, is poised to do very well in the 2010 midterms no matter what, a result for which Reed will likely be able to claim partial credit. Besides, even if his current project flops, another comeback is no doubt just around the corner.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor for The New Republic. This piece ran in the October 14, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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