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Conservative activist courts evangelical vote for Romney

Ralph Reed (center) has bounced back after his association with lobbyist Jack Abramoff hurt his reputation.Chip Litherland/New York Times/File 2011/NYT

DULUTH, Ga. — Ralph Reed is clearly relishing his revival.

Just six years ago, the man who turned the Christian Coalition into such a powerful political force that he was called ‘‘God’s right-hand man’’ was all but written off, tarnished by his ties to the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, then trounced in his campaign to become Georgia’s lieutenant governor.

But after several years in political purgatory, Reed has found his way back.

At the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., he was sought after by party luminaries and afforded the ultimate status accommodation, a room in the same hotel as Mitt Romney. And soon he plans to unleash a sophisticated, microtargeted get-out-the-evangelical-vote operation that he believes could nudge open a margin of victory if Romney can keep the race close.


The other day, sitting in an office lined with framed photographs from back in the heyday — here with President George W. Bush at a White House Christmas party, there with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican — the preternaturally youthful Reed, 51, propped his cowboy boots on a coffee table and made what he admits seems an audacious prediction.

He said record numbers of socially conservative evangelical Protestants will turn out for the first presidential election in history without a Protestant on the Republican ticket.

‘‘God,’’ he said with a laugh, ‘‘has a sense of humor.’’

That may be, but Reed has a plan. And he has the money to back it up: an estimated $10 million to $12 million from contributors across the Republican spectrum, according to a partial list of donors and people with direct knowledge of his operation.

Three years ago, Reed formed the Faith and Freedom Coalition and began assembling what he calls the largest-ever database of reliably conservative religious voters.

In the coming weeks, he says, each of those 17.1 million registered voters in 15 key states will receive three phone calls and at least three pieces of mail. Seven million of them will get e-mail and text messages. Two million will be visited by one of more than 5,000 volunteers. More than 25 million voter guides will be distributed in 117,000 churches.


White evangelicals are a crucial voting constituency, 26 percent of the 2008 electorate and overwhelmingly Republican in recent presidential cycles, exit polls show. With so few truly undecided voters left, bumping up evangelical turnout in swing states like Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, and Ohio would almost certainly help Romney.

But the success of Reed’s turnout-stimulus campaign will hinge on a variety of factors, not least whether those voters so dislike some of President Obama’s policies that they can overcome their mistrust of Romney’s Mormon faith and reversals on issues like abortion. And in an election dominated by jobs and the economy, it remains an open question whether culture-war hot buttons, like the president’s support for same-sex marriage, will be as potent as in the past.

In 2004, Reed was an architect of an evangelical turnout apparatus that is credited with helping Bush win reelection. Then came the Abramoff influence-peddling scandal. Though Reed was not charged, the work his consulting firm did for Abramoff’s Indian gambling clients by opposing plans for rivals’ casinos sullied his reputation among Christian conservatives, many of whom oppose gambling. Reed acknowledges that he used bad judgment.


‘‘Money and power always find a way to get in the same room, and it’s sometimes hard to resist the allure of that,’’ said Clint Austin, a Christian lobbyist who used to work with Reed. ‘‘I want to say this with humility because I’m not his judge, but there were so many causes for concern, and a lot of us felt like he needed to step back and get himself refocused. And I think that’s what he’s now done.’’

Reed began by aligning himself with Romney during the primary campaign against Senator John McCain, the eventual Republican nominee in 2008, said Reed’s friend Deal W. Hudson, president of the Pennsylvania Catholics Network. Reed distributed a film, ‘‘Amendment 6,’’ that linked the idea of religious tolerance to evangelicals’ acceptance of Mormonism.

‘‘That movie was a great example of how Ralph works,’’ said Matt Towery, a Georgia political analyst. ‘‘I don’t mean this pejoratively, but he is an opportunist. He finds himself an opportunity and he hits it, and he hits it hard.’’

With much of the work once done by party committees and campaigns now outsourced to super PACs and other outside groups, Reed saw another opportunity. In 2008, the Obama campaign won the turnout wars with technology and microtargeting data made available by the growth in online shopping. The Faith and Freedom Coalition, formed in 2009, is Reed’s attempt to do the same on the right.

To identify religious voters most likely to vote Republican, the group used 171 data points.


Names that overlapped at least a dozen or so data points were overlaid with voting records to yield a database with the addresses and, in many cases, e-mail addresses and cellphone numbers of the more than 17 million faith-centric registered voters.