In Georgia Race, the Shoo Is on the Other Foot

By Chris Cillizza
Sunday, July 16, 2006; A05

When Ralph Reed decided to run for lieutenant governor in Georgia, he was widely seen as a shoo-in. The former executive director of the Christian Coalition and past chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, Reed had friends at every level of state and national politics.

Turns out he had one too many. His ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff are one reason he's in a dead heat against state Sen. Casey Cagle in Tuesday's GOP primary.

In 1981, Reed was working as an intern for the College Republicans National Committee. His boss was Abramoff, the newly elected chairman. Their friendship paid off handsomely for both over the years.

Then came the revelations of a massive pay-to-play scheme, engineered by Abramoff, to take advantage of his connections to GOP lawmakers and influence state and federal legislation. He enlisted Reed -- for fees totaling more than $4 million -- to mobilize Christian activists to oppose Indian casinos seeking to compete with those operated by Abramoff clients. Reed has denied wrongdoing.

Politically, Reed has paid a price. His fundraising has lagged, as have his opinion poll numbers. Cagle, once regarded as little more than a nuisance, is now seen by GOP operatives as a slight favorite over Reed.

Reed has been hammered repeatedly for his Abramoff ties. In one Cagle television commercial, a narrator accuses Reed of making "millions with convicted felon Jack Abramoff" and "selling out our values."

But Reed has hit back, running ads that question Cagle's ethical standards during his tenure in the state Senate. Reed adds, "As head of the Christian Coalition and Georgia Republican Party, I fought for our values."

Republican voters apparently aren't convinced. A new poll by Strategic Vision, a GOP firm not connected to the race, showed that 36 percent of Republicans viewed Reed favorably, while 49 percent gave him an unfavorable rating. That same survey showed Cagle with a statistically insignificant 42 to 41 percent edge.

3 Months and $3.4 Million Later

"Matinee Mitt" appears to be a box-office smash.

From April 1 to the end of June, the six political action committees that form the foundation of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's planned 2008 presidential bid collected $3.4 million, a total that allies of the telegenic Republican insist is only a hint of his potential. As a governor, Romney is not bound by federal campaign finance laws.

In addition to a federal political action committee (the Commonwealth PAC), Romney has five state-based groups that allow donors to go well beyond federal limits. Romney has offshoots of the Commonwealth PAC in South Carolina, Michigan, Iowa and New Hampshire. (He also has a state PAC in Arizona, but it is not active.) Neither Michigan nor Iowa has limits on donations to a PAC; in New Hampshire, the ceiling is $5,000; in South Carolina, it is $3,500. The four states are early battlegrounds in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

Romney has used the PACs to spread cash around, in the hope of winning friends for the coming fight.

Take South Carolina, for example. In the past three months, Romney drew $236,000 into Commonwealth's arm in the state. The vast majority of the donors, 27, came from Utah. Not one donation was made by a South Carolina resident.

That's not to say Palmetto State politicians did not benefit. The PAC made contributions to more than 60 South Carolina candidates, including 47 to state House members.

Romney's largess has crossed state borders. Since Jan. 1, he has donated $471,000 to candidates and party committees around the country.

Romney is not alone. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another likely 2008 candidate, has raised $3.5 million through his Straight Talk America PAC in 2006 and donated more than $1 million to Republicans running in the November elections.

Another GOP Money Magnet

Speaking of fantastic fundraising, the Who's Who of GOP campaign elite are writing checks to Jill Holtzman Vogel, a candidate for the Virginia state Senate.

In the past three months, Holtzman Vogel collected $331,000 from people such as Matthew Dowd, senior strategist for President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign; Jack Oliver, fundraising guru for the Bush effort; Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2004 cycle; Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America; and Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, among many others.

Why would such big feet be interested in a state Senate race? Because Holtzman Vogel and her husband, Alex, are power players in the Washington world of Republican politics. Jill is an attorney, and Alex is a partner in Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, a lobbying firm, and a political adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

The cash being collected will go toward Holtzman Vogel's primary battle in the 27th District, a seat held by Republican state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr.

Since running as an independent in the 2005 Virginia governor's race, Potts has been the subject of retirement rumors. Whatever he does, Holtzman Vogel plans to run in the May 2007 primary. The district includes some of the Northern Virginia hunt country and stretches west to the Shenandoah Valley.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company