Ralph Reed, the lobbyist and former head of the Christian Coalition, wants to become the next lieutenant governor of Georgia.
Reed has two hurdles: One is the Republican primary, which takes place a week from Friday. The other hurdle is Reed's association with disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to bribery and defrauding clients.
As Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting Reports, the primary has come down to a referendum on Ralph Reed.
Four years ago, Georgia elected its first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Today, the GOP is the majority party in the state legislature. As chairman of Georgia's Republican Party, Ralph Reed was credited with bringing about that change. Now, as he told a recent breakfast gathering of Republicans in suburban Atlanta, he wants a piece of the action himself.
You've always been there for me. I've always been there for you," Reed told the gathering. "I ask for your prayers and your vote on July 18th for lieutenant governor."
His opponent in the primary, Georgia state senator Casey Cagle, has been running ads tying Reed to the Abramoff lobbying scandal. One ad notes that Reed called gambling immoral, but he "took millions of dollars from Abramoff to help casino interests."
The ad continues: "He supported Internet gambling, attacked conservative Republicans who oppoed him, and funneled his pay through nonprofits to hide it."
Reed's name keeps popping up in the Abramoff investigation. The two were friends and business associates. Last month, the Senate Indian affairs committee issued a report showing that Abramoff funneled more than $5 million from Indian tribes to Reed's lobbying firm. Reed used the money to defeat a state lottery in Alabama that would have competed with local Indian casinos.
Reed has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He says when he agreed to the deal, he was told by reputable lawyers that it wasn't gambling money.
"Clearly, in hindsight, these assurances were not sufficient, and that is work I wish I had turned down," Reed says. He says that he is being unfairly associated "with the wrongdoing of somebody else."
The scandal has had an effect on Don Butler, who is active in party politics in Gwinnett County, Ga., where the candidate breakfast was held. He says he likes Reed's ideas, but adds: "I have doubts about Ralph's integrity." Butler says some of Reed's dealings with Abramoff seem "underhanded."
But for Joe Newton, a Republican from Norcross, Ga., Reed is the victim of a witch-hunt.
Ralph has been the most thoroughly investigated man in Washington and has come out absolutely clean in every respect," Newton says. "And in fact, most of the information they got on Jack Abramoff comes from Ralph Reed. There is absolutely nothing there Ralph's done wrong. He knows where the line is."
But some Republicans worry about putting Reed on the ticket in November. They fear the Abramoff scandal could hurt the party and jeopardize its majority in the legislature. Twenty-two senators signed a letter asking Reed to step aside, but he has no such intentions.
And that doesn't surprise Republican pollster Matt Towery, who says Reed is looking at the lieutenant governor's job as the first step in ambitious plans for the future.
"I think probably in Ralph's mind, it's a launching pad to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," Towery says, adding, "We'll see about that."
Reed vehemently denies that the job is a stepping-stone to higher office. But he knows that first, he has to win next week's primary. The latest polls show the race to be very close. And if he wins the nomination, Reed knows that Georgia could see a massive influx of out-of-state money for the fall campaign — both for and against his candidacy.