WASHINGTON — For all of the convictions and guilty pleas it has produced, the investigative articles it has spawned, and the stomach ulcers it has given Republican consultants, it's easy to forget this one thing about the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal: So far, no politician linked to it has lost at the ballot box.
In May, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, won his contested primary, despite allegations that Abramoff's clients showered him with campaign contributions and a golf trip to Scotland in exchange for official acts. A month later, so did Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who had raked in more campaign contributions from Abramoff and his clients than any other member of Congress.
Even Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who resigned from Congress in part because of his ties to the lobbyist, still won his primary earlier in the year.
Of course, these politicians could very well lose in November -- analysts say that Ney and Burns are quite vulnerable in their general election contests, and DeLay could still wind up on the ballot after a recent court ruling -- but it's still striking that the Abramoff affair hasn't produced a single campaign casualty.
Will the streak continue?
That race may have just gotten more complicated. On Wednesday, a Texas Indian tribe filed a civil suit alleging that Reed, Abramoff and several of their business associates engaged in fraud and racketeering in an effort to shut down the tribe's casino.
Late last month, an InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion poll showed Reed slightly leading Cagle, 32-27 percent (with a whopping 41 percent undecided). But another InsiderAdvantage poll, released Monday after Cagle began hammering Reed's links to Abramoff in a television ad (but before the Texas lawsuit was filed), has the candidates deadlocked at 37 percent each. Another poll by Strategic Vision, a GOP firm, has Cagle leading Reed, 42-41 percent.
"Basically, the race is a dead heat," said Matt Towery, CEO of InsiderAdvantage. And the outcome could impact Georgia's gubernatorial contest and Reed's political career.
Reed, 45, has been a prominent figure within both the Republican Party and religious circles for nearly 20 years. In 1989, he became executive director of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, and made the cover of Time magazine (which labeled him "The Right Hand of God"). In 2002, Reed served as chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, helping the GOP win the state's contests that year for governor and U.S. Senate. And two years ago, he was the Bush-Cheney campaign's chairman for the southeast region.
But his ties to Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges earlier this year, go back even further.
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Reed and Abramoff first met in 1981, when they worked together at the College Republican national committee; Reed even introduced Abramoff to his eventual wife. After Reed left the Christian Coalition in 1997, he opened his own lobbying firm and asked Abramoff for help. "I need to start humping in corporate accounts!" Reed said to Abramoff in a 1998 email. "I'm counting on you to help me with some contacts."
Reed eventually became a key figure in Abramoff's lobbying operation, which centered on casinos run by Indian tribes. Among other things, Reed -- a lifelong gambling opponent -- used his contacts with religious conservatives to drum up opposition to casinos that would have competed against Abramoff's clients. In all, according to a recent report by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Reed earned more than $5.3 million from the operation.
And Cagle's TV ad in Georgia's race for lieutenant governor highlights Reed's ties to Abramoff. "What's behind Ralph Reed's false attacks?" states the ad, which shows Reed's face on playing cards. "A record of betrayal he's desperate to hide. Reed said gambling is 'immoral' but took millions of dollars from convicted felon Jack Abramoff to help casinos."
More recently, Cagle has suggested that Reed could faces charges before the November general election regarding his relationship with Abramoff, an accusation Reed strongly denies.
Merle Black, a professor of politics and government at Emory University, explains that what's damaging to Reed isn't necessarily Abramoff; rather, it's the gambling charge, which hurts him with his conservative supporters. "Abramoff is more of a national story," he notes. "He is in trouble because of the gambling issue."
Reed spokeswoman Lisa Baron says Reed hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing and, in hindsight, wouldn't have accepted that piece of business with Abramoff. She also argues that Cagle's ad is an attempt to hide his own ethical problems, which she alleges include casting votes that benefited his banking business and failing to pay payroll taxes on past campaign employees.
"We think that [Cagle's] strategy will be soundly rejected next Tuesday," Baron says, adding that Reed's support among conservatives will help him win the primary. "We are a grassroots campaign," she notes. "It's not a slogan. It's a strategy."
Indeed, political analysts in Georgia believe that Reed might still be the favorite to win. "Unless he's certain to be indicted, he stands a good chance of winning the Republican primary," says Kerwin Swint, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University and a former state GOP consultant.
Yet if Reed does win, these analysts add, that could potentially hurt incumbent Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, who's favored to win re-election in the fall. While candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separate campaigns in Georgia, Democrats would obviously try to link Reed -- and Abramoff -- to Perdue. "Reed puts a whole new dynamic in the race," says InsiderAdvantage's Towery.
Eyes on Tuesday
A Reed victory on Tuesday would also mean something else: that there still hasn't been a single campaign casualty from the Abramoff scandal. Would that mean that the scandal and its political impact have been overblown? "I think it's early to tell," replies Swint, the Kennesaw State University professor. "But I think there are a lot of Republicans across the country who look at it as a Washington story."
Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman at the ethics watchdog group Common Cause, says it's misleading to gauge the scandal's impact from primaries, since they consist of your most partisan voters.
Towery notes that the real test should be: "How do these people fare in a general election?" In fact, he says his polls show that GOP voters in the South, especially females, aren't showing much interest in the upcoming elections. And that could possibly doom Reed and other Republican candidates in the fall.
However, win or lose on Tuesday (or in November), Emory University's Black says that the Abramoff scandal has taken a toll on Reed, who has gone from a Republican rising star to someone who's fighting for his political life in a Georgia primary. "The boyish look is gone. This is one of the worst experiences in Reed's life."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
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