DULUTH, Ga. – The foyer to Century Strategies, the firm owned and run by Ralph Reed in the suburbs of Atlanta, is clean and uncluttered – much like the man himself. On a cherry table against the wall is a small statue of an eagle – an award given to Reed by the Boy Scouts of America. It is fitting, given Reed’s still boyish looks at 50 years of age. But while Reed still demonstrates the virtues of a Boy Scout, he has played and excelled in the hardball arena of politics for over half of his life, and done so very successfully.
Unlike in years past, Reed is more comfortable in his revised role, in his new skin so to speak. Sitting in an oversized leather chair, he was dressed in a grey suit with an open collar shirt. Absent is the stuffy and stiff persona Reed showcased in his early thirties. He is not only more relaxed, but more confident.
I sat down with Reed for about two hours, discussing his career that began when he was on staff with the College Republicans in the early 1980s – a time when he worked with Grover Norquist who was then the executive director of the organization. Reed succeeded Norquist in that role and as a result, developed close relationships with him and others who have since established a presence on the national political stage. The lessons and skills learned from his years at the local and national level in College Republicans were the same ones he took to local precincts and into the strategy rooms of presidential campaigns.
Born into a Navy family in Virginia, Reed spent much of his early years in Florida before settling in Georgia with his family in 1976. He went on to earn his history degree at the University of Georgia and later a PhD in American History from Emory University in 1989.
“I was about a chapter shy of finishing my thesis to satisfy my PhD requirements when I received the call from Pat Robertson to come work for the Christian Coalition,” Reed said in describing his early years. “It was an exciting time in my life and it gave me an incredible understanding of elections and insight into what motivates the evangelical voter. We were able to continue to build on the foundation that Jerry Falwell and those at Moral Majority started. That movement, the movement that Rev. Falwell started is now bigger than anyone ever imagined.”
Reed’s phenomenal success at the helm of the Christian Coalition landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1995 with the title reading, “The Right Hand of God: Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition.”
Regardless of what his critics have said about his time running the organization, Reed gathered and bought evangelical voters under a united tent and mobilized them to deliver numbers and results for candidates running for school board, legislative seats, Congress and the White House: an operation that at the time was only being accomplished by much larger and well-funded groups such as labor and teachers unions.
Are evangelical voters different now than they were in the “golden years” of the Christian Coalition? I also asked Reed to define the evangelical vote.
Simple, he said. “It’s the man, the woman, the family who has accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, they believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God and they attend church at least once a week. But the evangelical vote has ‘blended’ into the furniture and we’ve got to once again make it stand out.”
“To use today’s terminology, the evangelical vote is not Lady Gaga; it’s more like Madonna. We don’t need to reinvent what’s been around for awhile, we just need to keep it sharp,” said Reed.
“Like God’s word, it doesn’t change over time. Our initial objective was to see the day when Christians are as engaged as other groups, such as the feminist movement of old, unions and like the homosexual movement is today. And we have to remember, politics is about math – its all numbers, and if we turn out more than they do, we win, and the numbers are on our side.”
Campaigns have always been in Reed’s blood and he’s stood on the podium supporting the winners on election night and alone as the candidate who came up short. One such night was in 2006 when he lost his first and only election for public office when he ran for Lieutenant Governor in Georgia.
Reed’s candidacy began on an upward roll as he racked up endorsements from key party activists and financial commitments from major donors. His time as the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party or as President Bush’s southeastern director in 2004 didn’t hurt his efforts either. Other candidates considering making the race backed out, leaving Reed facing a little known state senator in the Republican primary. The tables began to turn when Sen. John McCain held hearings on the Jack Abramoff scandal and Reed business association with him was revealed.
Reed was never charged with any wrongdoing; however, it gave his critics plenty of ammunition to use against him. Many used all their bullets to try and kill his political career, but no one has ever been able to fire a fatal shot.
I asked Reed how he overcame the setbacks of losing his one and only race and bouncing back from the Abramoff scandal. “Ralph, what do you think people do when they’ve been knocked to their knees? What is the best way to get back up?
Reed was direct, forthright and relaxed in his response as he settled back in his leather chair.
“I wouldn’t dare presume to give advice to anyone on this issue, but it wasn’t as bad to me as people watching it probably thought it was. No one is perfect – we all make mistakes, but I felt like I was doing what God would have me to do when I worked for Bush, when I ran for office myself. I regret that I lost but I don’t regret that I ran. I ran for the right reasons and on a good platform, I was a good candidate. I genuinely mean this, not just about me, just about everyone. There’s no shame in losing. The shame is in not having the guts to run because you’re not sure you’re going to win. That’s what’s sad. There are lots of great people sitting on the sidelines who have so much to offer,” Reed remarked.
Reed, for one, is not sitting on the sidelines, even if he’s not running for office himself. And he’s not shy about how much he has to offer his country.
“I genuinely believe, and I don’t mean this in an egotistical way, I genuinely believe I had a lot to offer and I was willing to offer myself for the good of my state and my country; to serve. Okay, so I didn’t win. Big deal. No one knows better than I do that you don’t have to serve in elected office to have an impact. In fact, I think in some ways, I was done a favor. I think I can have far greater impact in what I’m doing now, than if I won and had been elected.”
“I don’t understand some things. I don’t know why God calls you to run and not win, but His ways are higher than our ways. For me, you’ve got to figure out what’s next, what the next chapter is.”
It appears Reed has already figured out how his next chapter will read.
In 2009, Reed formed what is now known as the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “I woke up one morning and knew that if we didn’t….if we couldn’t mobilize the evangelical vote we couldn’t win the White House or take back Congress in the near future,” said Reed.
He describes his new organization as “the Christian Coalition on Steroids,” hoping to appeal to a more motivated and focused voter base.
“I think what the Tea Party has done is wonderful. But contrary to what some think, I believe a good portion of the group are evangelicals looking for a place to go and for a mountain to move,” said Reed. “Our objective is to build a voter file in excess of 25 million evangelicals. Technology has certainly changed since the mid-90s when all we were doing was printing voter guides and we’re posed to take advantage of it. We can call them, text them, knock on their doors and drive them to the polls. And if they vote, and vote at the same time….well, then we elect the right kind of candidates at all levels.”
Gary Marx is the executive director of Family and Freedom Coalition and has worked with Reed for many years. On the heels of a highly successful conference in June, Marx said the Coalition is planning two more events this year: a September rally in Orlando, Fla., and another later this fall in South Carolina. These regional gatherings are expected to attract around 1,000 people plus.
“About 4 million evangelical voters failed to show up in 2000, but came back to the polls in 2004,” said Marx. We jokingly refer to that block as ‘Karl’s missing 4 million,’ a reference to Karl Rove who was known as the architect of President George Bush’s campaigns. But we think 2012 will be a watershed year and that we’ll help bring more evangelicals to the polls than ever before.”
The coalition offices are housed adjacent to Reed’s consulting operations and have the look and feel of a campaign headquarters.
“That’s what this is,” said Marx. “Pure and simple.”
Who does Reed feel can beat President Obama?
“That’s a tough question to answer,” Reed said as he reflected on the question. “I don’t mean to sound too evasive, but we’ve got a few really great candidates in the race. I think Michele Bachman is the total package. Unfortunately, the base is just not in the mood for a nice guy. That’s why Trump had his explosion of support. That’s why Michele is doing so well. She’s willing to throw a punch.”
And what about the rest of the field?
“Tim Pawlenty is a real believer – a great conservative – a great guy. I’ve known Tim since he was in the State Senate. The funny thing about Tim is everyone looks at that Midwestern, Minnesota nice thing and they misapprehend who he is. He’s got a hard, solid core. He has a real backbone but hasn’t taken advantage of it when he should have. He should have hit Romney hard during the last debate and I don’t understand why he let that opportunity slip away.”
What about Rick Perry? He seems to be getting a lot of encouragement to run.
“I tend to think Perry will get in, but I don’t think he’s made a final decision. I don’t think he has a lot of support within the Bush camp, but then again I don’t think they’re for anyone else either. I think most of them will simply sit on the sidelines like everyone else is doing. I don’t see them (Bush financial supporters) being a factor either way,” Reed said.
It is obvious Reed misses the nuts and bolts of campaigns. He lights up when he discusses campaign strategy, seeming to go back in time to his days of orchestrating victories during his college Republican days or at the Christian Coalition.
Future in Politics
Does Reed have another big race in his future?
“We have a tremendous opportunity in 2012,” Reed said with excitement. “One thing people know about Obama besides all the talk of hope and change; when you’re surrounded by the likes of Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, okay, you’re aiming for the jugular and it’s with a rusty blade. We have to be sharp and we have to be disciplined and focused. That’s where Faith and Freedom can come in. We’re going to be ready for the Obama mercenaries and ready to win.”
What are the most important issues going into the 2012 election cycle?
“Because of the economy and reapportionment, I don’t see us losing the House anytime soon. Obviously, we need to turn our attention to the Senate and the White House,” stated Reed. “The big issue...the overriding issue of the day is jobs. People aren’t going to talk about abortion or same-sex marriage when they’re unemployed. That’s why we’ve got to let voters know how financially irresponsible Obama has been. I’m all for increasing our broadband network, but when you spend $130 million on a network in the middle of Kansas, something is wrong. When you tell someone who took out too big of a mortgage that they don’t have to pay on it right now, something is wrong.”
“Besides,” said Reed. “I think Obama is the most anti-Israel President in my lifetime, at least since the modern formation of Israel. If it were up to him, Obama would probably come out in support of Palestine and endorse same-sex marriage. But he knows he can’t do either until after the election. Our country doesn’t need to give him that chance.”
One thing is certain: Reed is comfortable with himself at this point in his life. He’s just as knowledgeable and assertive as he’s always been – and a bit wiser as well. The victories, the defeats and the battle scars have given him his second wind and he seems prepared to sail full steam ahead into the next half-century.
Reed and his wife Jo Anne have been married since 1987 and raised four children, the youngest of which is 13. “We’re practically empty-nesters,” Reed said. “It’s now much quieter around the dinner table.”
In all his spare time, he has written five books: two non-fiction books and three political fiction books, the last of which will be released in October of this year.
Oh, and one last question. Will you ever run for office again?
“I’m not ruling it out – never say never. But, it’s probably obvious to me an others that I’m much better at getting others elected that I am at electing myself,” Reed said laughing.
Laughing is something Reed does often and after spending a few minutes with him, both his laugh and smile are contagious. He wants Republicans to be smiling with him on a Wednesday morning in November of 2012.
Correction:Monday, August 1, 2011:
An article on July 17, 2011, about Ralph Reed and his Faith and Freedom Coalition quoted Reed as saying, “I don’t see him being a factor either way.” The quote should read, “I don’t see them (Bush financial supporters) being a factor either way.”