By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Ralph Reed, the Republican operative who built the Christian Coalition into a potent political force in the 1990s by mobilizing evangelicals and other religious conservatives and who did similar work to help George W. Bush win two presidential elections, is quietly launching a group aimed at using the Web to mobilize a new generation of values voters. In addition to targeting the GOP's traditional faith-based allies—white evangelicals and observant Catholics—the group, called the Faith and Freedom Coalition, will reach out to Democratic-leaning constituencies, including Hispanics, blacks, young people, and women.
"This is not your daddy's Christian Coalition," Reed said in an interview Monday. "It's got to be more brown, more black, more female, and younger. It's critical that we open the door wide and let them know if they share our values and believe in the principles of faith and marriage and family, they're welcome."
"There's a whole rising generation of young leaders in the faith community, and rather than nab the publicity I did at Christian Coalition, I want to cultivate and train that rising generation," Reed said. "One question is, who is our future Barack Obama, doing local organizing just like he was in the 1990s?"
The Faith and Freedom Coalition has been quietly active for a few weeks but has attracted no news media notice so far. Reed said that was intentional: "We're less focused on the pyrotechnics than on being a strong grass-roots presence all the way down to the precinct level, which has always been my emphasis."
The idea for the new group, which is still hashing out an organizational blueprint, was born just after Election Day 2008, when exit polls showed that Obama made gains among traditionally Republican religious constituencies, including evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and frequent churchgoers. "Since I left the Christian Coalition, we haven't had an engine designed to turn out this large part of the vote," Reed said. "After the election, people said that I ought to consider doing something about it."
As a consultant to Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and as a top campaign operative for his 2004 effort, Reed essentially brought the Christian Coalition—which imploded after Reed's 1997 departure—inside the Republican Party, helping Bush secure a record 79 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2004.
John McCain's 2008 campaign, which lacked a similar effort, failed to turn out new values voters at a time when Obama was driving up turnout among minorities and young people and making modest inroads among religious constituencies, according to Reed. Obama got 26 percent of the white evangelical vote, compared with 21 percent for John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
"For those of us in the 72-hour task force," Reed said, referring to the get-out-the-vote operation the Republican Party pioneered under Bush, "we know that without a volunteer network knocking on doors, making phone calls, and registering people to vote, we're going to continue to get out-hustled. The Faith and Freedom Coalition can be part of the solution."
Had Sarah Palin not joined McCain's ticket, Reed said, the Republican nominee most likely would have fared even worse among religious conservatives. "Palin was a much bigger asset to McCain than Biden was to Obama," he said. "As an authentic conservative and as a woman of faith, she brought a huge injection of energy."
Reed is serving as chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and says he has filed papers with the Internal Revenue Service to register it as a 501(c)(4), a tax-free designation that permits lobbying and certain political activities. Gary Marx, Reed's deputy at the 2004 Bush campaign and Mitt Romney's conservative outreach director in 2008, will help advise the group. Jack St. Martin, a former top Republican National Committee staffer, is running day-to-day operations.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition plans to launch state and local chapters, as the Christian Coalition did, but is exploring the idea of organizing as much via "virtual chapters" that would operate online with the help of social networking technology. "The Internet's first wave was E-mail, and the next wave was social networking, which Obama perfected," Reed said. "There's going to be a third wave, which we're still developing."
The social conservative movement has also changed dramatically since the '90s, when Reed spent much of his time simply trying to get religious conservatives to overcome their aversion to politics. "People of faith today are still a minority, but they're not a beleaguered minority," Reed said. "Twenty years ago, we never had people who had been the chief speechwriter to the president or senior staff at the Justice Department and all that has changed."
Headquartered in the offices of Reed's consulting firm, Century Strategies, near Atlanta, the group plans to open a Washington office but says it will keep its staff small. St. Martin is currently the only full-time employee. "We don't want the huge overhead of a centralized group," says St. Martin, who worked at the Christian Coalition in the 1990s. "We'll have a few generals, but at the end of the day, we're going to emphasize putting boots on the ground out in the field."
A political prodigy whom Pat Robertson tapped to run the Christian Coalition at age 28, Reed had personal political ambitions that were stymied in 2006, when he lost a Republican primary in the race to be Georgia's lieutenant governor. His close ties to jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff probably cost Reed the race, though he was never charged with wrongdoing.
Joel Vaughan, author of the forthcoming book The Rise and Fall of the Christian Coalition, says he doubts that fallout from Reed's ties to Abramoff will hamper his new group's ambitions. "Conservative Christians still need an organization to rally around," says Vaughan, who worked at the Christian Coalition in the 1990s. "The enthusiasm definitely waned during eight years of a friendly president."
The Faith and Freedom Coalition joins a growing number of new social conservative groups, including one led by Newt Gingrich and another spearheaded by Princeton professor Robert George. Reed said his group plans to be active in the 2010 midterm elections but emphasized that building it would take years. "We'll want people deployed in the field for key districts and states for 2010," he said. "But I don't think we'll be where we'll end up five years from now."