The Downward Spiral

Posted: July 20, 2006 in 2006 Elections, Beltway Drama

On Tuesday, former Christian Coalition organizer Ralph Reed became the first victim of the Jack Abramoff scandal at the ballot box.

According to Rich Lowry at the Corner, in trying to explain his loss Reed’s people point the finger directly at John McCain and the press (emphasis is mine):

Cagle v. Reed [Rich Lowry]

Here’s the view of what happened from the Reed camp: Once the Abramoff stuff exploded, it was going to be a very tough road for Reed. Glen Bolger did a poll for the campaign in January showing that it was possible for Reed to win, but his negatives were very high and he would have to squeak by. Reed had a choice to make, and decided to stay in the race and try to make it happen. In the end, soft Republicans appear to have broken very strongly against him in the suburbs. There may have been some cross-over Democratic votes in the open primary, but that alone can’t account for a 54-46% loss. Reed’s connection to the Abramoff stuff had broken back in the summer of 2004, so it couldn’t have been predicted that it would be such a huge deal even now. But it was. The Reed camp blames John McCain for playing payback for his 2000 primary defeat with a campaign of leaks, and the press, of course, was happy to pile on. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran dozens and dozens of stories about the scandal. Outside liberal groups might have spent upwards of a quarter-million on the race. The Reed team felt good at the close of the race, but, in the end, they just couldn’t scratch it out.

Reed has gone a long way from this:

Time Magazine cover boy in 1995:

The New Hampshire senate, which usually deigns to listen only to would-be Presidents, paid close attention to his message. The ranks of conservative Christians, Reed said, are now “too large, too diverse, too significant to be ignored by either major political party.” Not long ago, America’s Christian right was dismissed as a group of pasty-faced zealots, led by divisive televangelists like Jerry Falwell, who helped yank the Republican Party so far to the right that moderates were frightened away. But Reed has emerged as the movement’s fresh face, the choirboy to the rescue, a born-again Christian with a fine sense of the secular mechanics of American politics. His message, emphasizing such broadly appealing themes as support for tax cuts, has helped make the Christian Coalition one of the most powerful grass-roots organizations in American politics. Its 1.6 million active supporters and $25 million annual budget, up from 500,000 activists and a $14.8 million budget just two years ago, hold a virtual veto on the Republican nominee for President, and will exert an extraordinary influence over who will occupy the Oval Office beginning in 1997.

To this:

(Abramoff is the one furthest to the left wearing the black shirt and baseball cap. Reed is the one to Abramoff’s immediate left, wearing khakis and a long sleeve shirt.)
From the Washington Post:

[Abramoff] looked to Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader who operated several consulting companies. Reed has acknowledged receiving as much as $4 million from Abramoff and his associate, Scanlon, to organize grass-roots anti-gambling campaigns in Louisiana and Texas. The money came from casino-rich Indian tribes, including the Coushattas, but Reed said that although he knew of Abramoff’s connection to the tribes, he did not know until media accounts surfaced last summer that his fees came from gambling proceeds.

Reed then turned to Dobson to marshal his vast network of evangelicals, Abramoff’s e-mails show.

If you thought that arrangement sounded bad, their own words in e-mails obtained by investigators and the press make it sound even worse. Again, from the Washington Post (emphasis is mine):

Among those e-mails was one from Reed to Abramoff in late 1998: “I need to start humping in corporate accounts! . . . I’m counting on you to help me with some contacts.” Within months, Abramoff hired him to lobby on behalf of the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, who were seeking to prevent competitors from setting up facilities in nearby Alabama.

In 1999, Reed e-mailed Abramoff after submitting a bill for $120,000 and warning that he would need as much as $300,000 more: “We are opening the bomb bays and holding nothing back.”

In 2004, when the casino payments to Reed were disclosed, Reed issued a statement declaring “no direct knowledge of their [Abramoff’s law firm’s] clients or interests.” In 2005, however, Senate investigators released a 1999 e-mail from Abramoff to Reed explicitly citing the client: “It would be really helpful if you could get me invoices [for services performed] as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks ASAP.”

One of the most damaging e-mails was sent by Abramoff to partner Michael Scanlon, complaining about Reed’s billing practices and expenditure claims: “He is a bad version of us! No more money for him.” Scanlon and Abramoff have pleaded guilty to defrauding clients.

And finally to this:

(Photo from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

I recommend reading the entire AJC article linked above, but here’s a key passage:

Reed often blamed “the liberal media” for focusing on the his dealings with Abramoff, but in fact many evangelical Christians were also disaffected.

Clint Austin of Marietta is a former Reed employee who ran Reed’s successful bid to become state Republican Party chairman in 2001. On Monday, Austin, now a state Capitol lobbyist, posted on the Internet an article in which he explained why he would not vote for Reed.

“My reason for abandoning my support of Ralph is simple: Ralph Reed’s words and actions do not match up,” Austin wrote.

I’d say Tom DeLay was the first political victim of the Abramoff scandal, but he decided to abandon his re-election effort instead of sticking around to run against Nick Lampson. Both Texas state parties are awaiting a ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to see whether they will uphold or overturn the ruling by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks earlier this month forcing DeLay back in the race. However, DeLay has additional problems with the ongoing investigation by DA Ronnie Earle in Austin, so his legal and political problems weren’t only Abramoff-related.

How this will bode for other Abramoff-tainted lawmakers (i.e. Bob Ney, Conrad Burns) remains to be seen, but since the Washington Post reported the first Abramoff story back in 2004 and kept revealing more about his lobbying scheme, the name Abramoff has become politically radioactive in DC. Whether this will matter to their constituents back home when both men are up for re-election in November, we’ll have to keep watching both races as well as any further revelations from Abramoff-related investigations by the government and the media.

For further reference material, check out this section of the Washington Post archiving all of its Abramoff stories, for which they won a Pulitzer Prize.

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