While rumors and accusations swirl inside the Beltway about lawmakers and their ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, far away in Georgia similar accusations of ethical impropriety are being bandied about in the race for lieutenant governor.
The controversy involves Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and a longtime friend of Abramoff who is running for lieutenant governor in that state.
Abramoff has been charged with five counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy in Florida, stemming from his involvement in the 2000 purchase of gambling cruise line, SunCruz. He is also under federal investigation for allegations that he bilked dozens of Indian tribes out of more than $85 million, and he is accused of conspiring with Reed and conservative power broker Grover Norquist to coordinate lobbying against his own clients and prospective clients with the goal of demonstrating just how much they needed Abramoff’s lobbying help.
Reed, who knew Abramoff from their days as leaders of the College Republicans, received millions of dollars to campaign against gambling interests that competed with Abramoff’s clients, according to several articles in The Washington Post and other publications.
Reed has said that he did not know tribes were the source of at least some of those payments. As the investigation continues and the campaign for lieutenant governor intensifies, Reed’s ties to Abramoff have become easy ammunition for opponents to use against him.
“Ralph Reed is an embarrassment to the Republican Party,” said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for state senator Casey Cagle, Reed’s leading challenger in the primary.
Alexander said Reed’s participation in running attack ads against 10 GOP House incumbents for their support of Rep. Robert Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) Internet gambling bill reveals his “real commitment” to the Republican Party. Alexander added that Cagle is more focused on talking about the issues but has felt compelled to respond to Reed’s alleged ethical impropriety.
“We encourage Ralph to be honest about who he’s worked for,” Alexander said.
Lisa Baron, a spokeswoman for Reed said, brushed Alexander’s comments aside as negative campaigning.
“The Reed campaign has respect for the voters. That’s why we are running a positive campaign focused on improving the lives of all Georgians,” Baron said. “Sadly, we can’t say the same for our opponent.”
Cagle has not launched any television ads attacking Reed on the issue, but Dr. Robert Grafstein, a professor at the University of Georgia’s department of political science, said Cagle has criticized Reed’s ethics in speeches to community groups and in the media.
“It is making an impact,” Grafstein said when asked whether Reed’s ties to Abramoff and charges of ethical impropriety are beginning to influence the primary race. “Reed’s main strength is with social conservatives and Christian groups. Some of them think they have been had.”
David E. Johnson, CEO and co-founder of Strategic Vision LLC, a Georgia public-relations firm that frequently conducts polls of local and national races, also said the Abramoff connection is starting to have an impact on the race.
“It looks like [Reed] is slowly starting to bleed — death by 1,000 cuts,” he said.
Johnson noted that while the average Georgia voter had not been following the Reed-Abramoff connection, the increased media coverage is causing more people to take notice.
“Voters are starting to see these stories over and over again. It’s beginning to take its toll,” Johnson said.
He added that Reed’s polling numbers were beginning to drop in his surveys and others around the state.
On Oct. 22, Time magazine released e-mails between Reed and Abramoff revealing that the lobbyist frequently asked for Reed’s help and influence in the White House to further various business interests. According to the e-mails, Reed used his influence to argue against the appointment of Angela Williams to head the Interior Department’s Office Insular Affairs, an appointment Abramoff thought would threaten his business interests. Williams did not receive the appointment.
Despite the controversy, Reed remains the front-runner in the Republican primary, raising $1.4 million, the most money ever raised by any candidate for lieutenant governor in the state, according to Baron.
In comparison, Cagle has raised $700,000, according to Alexander.
The primary is scheduled for July 18.
In a September poll conducted by Strategic Vision, Reed had increased his lead over Cagle, 45 to 28 percent. An August poll showed Reed leading 48 to 35 percent. An updated poll is due to be released today.
When asked whether they had a favorable or unfavorable view of Reed, however, 45 percent of Republican respondents said they had a favorable view, down from 54 percent in an August poll by the same company. Cagle received a slight boost from August to September, with 39 percent of respondents responding that they had a favorable opinion, up from 37 percent.