Brief Lives April 2004

Second Coming

Ralph Reed, now born again as a political strategist, has moved on from doing God's work to doing George W. Bush's

Few figures in American politics seem more fixed in time and place than Ralph Reed. As the brash, boyish director of the Christian Coalition a decade ago, Reed personified the ascendant religious right: he was an articulate, media-savvy spokesman who put to rest the predominant stereotype of religious conservatives as fiery televangelists, and led them into the modern political era. An organizational genius, Reed transformed the remnants of Pat Robertson's failed 1988 presidential campaign into a potent political force, more than a million strong at its peak. The Christian Coalition was instrumental in shaping the Republican Party of the 1990s, and helped Newt Gingrich bring off the Republican revolution of 1994. For a time Reed appeared likely to be the power behind the curtain for years to come. In 1995 Time seemed only mildly hyperbolic when it extolled him on the cover as "the right hand of God."

The following year, however, the Republican Party of Gingrich and Reed seemed to expire after Bob Dole's defeat by Bill Clinton. Reed's aggressive style of conservatism alienated moderate voters. He left the Christian Coalition in 1997, just as its influence began to wane, and largely disappeared from the public eye.

But he did not abandon politics. Reed returned to Georgia, where he had been raised, and began anew as a secular political consultant. The return home could not have provided much professional solace: the governor's mansion was in the hands of a popular Democrat, and by 2000 both the state's Senate seats, too, were held by Democrats. The consulting firm that Reed founded, Century Strategies, had an inauspicious start when most of its clients, including Alabama Governor Fob James, lost their 1998 races. Nevertheless, over the next four years Reed helped do for the Georgia Republican Party something much like what he'd done for the Coalition—organizing and rebuilding it from the ground up. He was elected state party chairman in 2001, and in 2002 the Georgia Republicans won a historic upset. Sonny Perdue became the first Republican in thirty-nine gubernatorial elections to win, and a Republican congressman, Saxby Chambliss, defeated the Democratic senator Max Cleland. Georgia's other senator, Zell Miller, is a Democrat in name only, who has already endorsed George W. Bush—so in practical terms Georgia was fully Republican. "What happened in Georgia in 2002 was a once-in-a-decade performance," says the political analyst Charlie Cook.

Even if it had many causes (not least the tremendous appeal of the President, whose visits in behalf of Republican candidates Reed leveraged to maximum effect), this startling success testified to Reed's enduring skill as a political strategist. The Georgia resurgence went a long way toward detoxifying his image, proving that he could succeed outside the context of a politics whose very nature was implicitly rejected by his party's embrace of "compassionate" conservatism. The Bush Administration has acknowledged Reed's achievement by putting him in charge of the Southeast for the upcoming re-election campaign—recognition that confers high standing in the current Republican hierarchy. Beneath that very practical tribute lies a greater honor, and a challenge. Because most southeastern states are reliably Republican, Reed's true responsibility is to reprise his Georgia performance in the state that analysts of both parties believe could once again determine the next President: Florida.

For all his star wattage as a media figure, Reed's political success with the Christian Coalition stemmed from his ability to master the drudgery of grassroots organizing. Reed ran leadership schools and activist training seminars, and his early understanding of such tactics as barraging politicians with e-mails, faxes, and phone calls made the Christian Coalition—with its 2,000 chapters nationwide ready to coalesce and strike quickly almost anywhere in the country—the feared and respected outfit that it was. Reed once bragged, "We're the McDonald's of American politics."

He applied the same missionary zeal to organizing the party in Georgia before the 2002 elections, assembling 3,000 volunteers and 500 paid workers who significantly lifted Republican turnout. "Organization has been my background since I started with the College Republicans, twenty-five years ago," Reed told me when I visited him recently in his office at Century Strategies, in suburban Atlanta. "When I took my kids trick-or-treating the Thursday before that election, I brought some door hangers that had our slate of candidates and a picture of the President with Sonny Perdue and Saxby Chambliss that said, 'The Bush Team. Vote Tuesday.' Every house my kids went to to get candy, I either handed it to the person or hung it on the door handle. Now, you might say, 'Big deal. You hung forty door hangers.' But what if three thousand people hung forty door hangers? Do the math."

He continued, "I went up to Ray Buchanan, the defensive back for the Atlanta Falcons, who lives down the street from me. He and my wife are friends. We were going down the street with our kids, and Ray happened to be out in the driveway, and I went up to him and handed him a flyer and said, 'I want you to vote for Saxby and Sonny on Tuesday.' And he said, 'I will. I'll vote for them.'" Reed stressed that voter contact like this on a broad scale is the key to winning Florida, and that organizing the state, and registering 75,000 new voters, is the first order of business on his regular trips there. (He was practiced enough to laugh when I asked if he would organize the Miami Dolphins.)

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Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.

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