Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Cagle win: We called it first

Just in case anyone cares, at 8:55 p.m. Tuesday, I sent out the following e-mail:
-- Original Message ----
From: Stacy McCain
To: [NAMES REDACTED]
Cc: [NAME REDACTED]
Sent: Tuesday, July 18, 2006 8:55:18 PM
Subject: CAGLE WINS!
CAGLE leading by 2,300 votes in Cobb County with nearly 2/3 of precincts reporting. Cagle is running strong in North Georgia, and his strongest counties -- Hall and Gwinnett -- have yet to come in. If Reed can't win Cobb County, he can't win, period. I'm getting ready to call it for Cagle. ...
One of the recipients replied:
"I'd hold off for just a bit longer, Stacy...there's a good bit more of Metro Atlanta, and a whole lot of the rural areas of the state to go. Just need to keep up this double-digit lead..."
Another recipient replied:
"The Cobb numbers haven't moved in a while. It could tighten up. Not likely but possible."
But by the time I saw either of those, I'd already updated the blog:
9 p.m.: CAGLE WINS
Hate to risk a "Dewey Defeats Truman" situation, but the early returns clearly point to a Cagle victory. With Hall and Gwinnett yet to report, and Cagle leading in Cobb, Paulding and throughout North Georgia, this one is an easy call:
CAGLE WINS.
Peach Pundit called it at 9:14 p.m.

Erick asks a good question: "Does Insider Advantage offer refunds?" Matt Towery had Reed leading right up until about a week ago, when Cagle pulled even.

I remember when Brad Alexander told me the Cagle campaign's internal polling showed their guy up by as much as 9 points.

That seemed like braggadocio, but -- wow! -- Cagle won by 12 points. So score one for Cagle's pollsters.

Primary Day

Towery had said (a) Cagle did better among "leaners" but (b) the high level of "undecided" voters meant that a low turnout would help Reed. So when my first call today (from Darryl B. in Cartersville) indicated a low turnout, I figured it would be neck-and-neck.

But as the results started coming in, Cagle established a steady 55%-45% lead, with strong numbers throughout North Georgia. I'd traveled through West and Northwest Georgia over the 4th of July holiday and knew Cagle would be strong there. But Reed, who was supposedly stronger in South Georgia, wasn't getting any really impressive numbers there.

With about 1/5 of the precincts reporting statewide as 9 p.m. approached, Cobb County was breaking against Reed. Knowing that Cagle would win big in Hall County and do well in neighboring Gwinnett, I couldn't see any way Reed could win, so I went out on the limb and called it.

Why Reed lost

Last year, my brother who lives in Douglasville called my attention to the Atlanta newspapers' reporting on Reed's involvement in the Abramoff scandal. At the time, like a lot of other people, I dismissed it as just so much smear-mongering by the liberal AJC.

If you've ever been to the Capitol in Atlanta and seen former Gov. Lester Maddox's official portrait -- featuring a fish wrapped in a copy of the Atlanta Constitution -- you know what most people think about what Maddox always called "those lyin' Atlanta papers." No amount of scandal reporting by the AJC was going to stop Reed from winning the GOP primary. Being attacked by the AJC is routing for Republicans in Georgia.

But in December 2005, as Lynn and I were approaching deadline for DONKEY CONS (buy TWO!), we felt we had to address the Abramoff scandal -- which eventually formed the concluding chapter of the book. And that's when I came across Matt Continetti's article, "Money, Mobsters, Murder" in The Weekly Standard.

After reading that, I felt sure that Reed would have to quit the race. No way, after head sold his soul to the casino lobby, could Reed count on the support of conservative Christians in Georgia. I remembered how they'd fought all-out against the Georgia lottery, and I felt sure they'd resent Reed's involvement in that wretched scandal. And that feeling was reinforced when I read a Bloomberg News article in January:
Campaign-finance reports filed this week show that Reed, 44, lagged behind opponent Casey Cagle in fundraising for the July 18 Republican primary during the past six months, after collecting more than twice as much money as his rival before that. Cagle raised $667,000 from June 30 to Dec. 31 to Reed's $404,000. ...
"There are concerns as to whether Ralph will continue to make headlines that are harmful to the party,'' said Eric Johnson, who as the Georgia Senate's president pro tem is a top Republican. ...
The young Republicans following in Reed's footsteps -- students, budding activists and campaign managers -- now don't want him to run, said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens.
"Without exception, they are hoping he's not on the ticket,'' Bullock said.
With his fundraising drying up and the young GOP activists embarassed by Reed, the handwriting was obviously on the wall. And yet, against all logic, Reed stayed in the race.

'Mene, mene, tekel upharsin'

Because of my friendships with several conservative evangelicals in Georgia, I knew that the Abramoff revelations would make it hard for Reed to mobilize his old Christian Coalition "base" for the campaign. That's why, when Erick posted something at Peach Pundit in late February, showing that Reed had the big-money Chamber of Commerce crowd on his side, I was intrigued:
Having alienated his Christian conservative base by prostituting himself to Indian Jack, now Reed is prostituting himself to the same Chamber of Commerce crowd that backed Johnny Isaakson (R-Youkiddingme), who is such a notorious RINO he should be in the Atlanta Zoo instead of the U.S. Senate.
(Apologies to Isaakson, who had a RINO reputation back home but has emerged as a staunch conservative in Washington.)

Most of the media, both nationally and in Georgia, seemed to take for granted that Reed would retain his Christian conservative support, and so interpreted Reed's play for the Chamber of Commerce crowd as an expansion of Reed's campaign. What I saw was Reed attempting to pull in the big money boys to make up for the erosion of his support within the conservative grassroots. (Of course, it was easier for Reed to get the big money during the months when the General Assembly was in session and Cagle was forbidden by Georgia law from raising money.)

That was the same time when WORLD Magazine came out with an article examining Reed's Abramoff connections. People outside the evangelical world don't understand how much impact that had on Reed. WORLD is to the Christian homeschooling community what Newsweek is to the rest of America. I don't know what their circulation is, but they've got a real strong readership among homeschooling leaders, and those people would otherwise have been expected to be strong activists for the Reed campaign.

That was what led me to wonder whether Reed needed Aramaic lessons.

The campaign unfolds

All along, Reed's strongest asset was the sense of inevitability: He was the leader, he had the connections, he had the endorsements, he was going to win. That was the whole point of the big Atlanta fundraiser with Rudy Giuliani: To create an aura of invincibility.

There is a certain bandwagon effect in politics. People like to vote for the winner. So by bringing in Giuliani and basking in a warm media glow, Reed was seeking to create that winning impression. I was almost alone in suspecting that, when the expenses were considered, the Giuliani "fundraiser" was actually a money-losing event.

Yet Reed, because of his service as chairman of the Georgia GOP, still had strong support, and because the public polling showed him leading, the "Fear Factor" was in play. I started picking this up from some of the comments at Peach Pundit: Some Republicans were afraid to stand up and denounce Reed because, if he won the primary, they might become pariahs within the party apparatus. So if there was some kind of anti-Reed backlash among hard-core Republicans, it was going to be a quiet backlash.

One of the reasons Reed was so fear was because of his reputation for being able to mobilize an "army" of volunteers. That just didn't pan out on Tuesday. Why?

Simple: In the past, Reed was always organizing conservatives against liberals. It's one thing to get Georgia Republicans fired up to go campaign against Democrats. It's another thing altogether to get them to go campaign against a conservative Republican like Casey Cagle.

Cagle has a rock-solid conservative record, without being offensive or frightening to suburban soccer moms. Sure, Ralph could always get an "army" to volunteer against whatever liberal menace was represented by John Kerry or Max Cleland. But what's the menace of Cagle? It just doesn't work, see.

Attacks fail, and backfire

Matt Towery explained the strategy of why Reed, in June, began rolling out a series of ads attacking Cagle. Both because of his Christian Coalition background and the Abramoff scandals, Reed had "high negatives." By attacking Cagle, Reed sought to drive up Cagle's negatives to the point that Reed would not be at such a disadvantage.

Negative campaigning also tends to drive down turnout, and a low-turnout race -- where most of the Republican voters were hard-core party regulars -- would be to the advantage of Reed, the former state GOP chairman.

The problem is, Cagle's record and reputation were so solid that Reed couldn't make an honest hit on him. Instead, Reed tried to distort Cagle's record on property rights and other issues. But the Cagle campaign was able to fire back with the facts, and anyone who cared to investigate the claims would surely see that Reed's attacks were misleading.

Reed's negative attacks thus made him look dishonest and unfair. Furthermore, after two or three weeks of attack ads on TV, Reed had no room to complain when Cagle finally unleashed what Towery called "the hydrogen bomb," an ad highlighting Reed's Abramoff connections.

Towery said Cagle should have gone negative earlier, but I think the Cagle campaign played it right. Cagle had a good reputation and strong backing by Republican state senators. He could afford to play a "rope-a-dope" strategy: Take the hits, and wait for the sixth round.

So Cagle waited until July 3 and then lit it up, having hoarded enough money to be able to keep the ads playing in steady rotation as the campaign hit the home stretch. The ad ensured that the Abramoff issue would be a central focus of the televised debates and -- though Cagle supporters felt he spent too much time emphasizing Abramoff in the debates -- in the end, Georgians saw that Reed had no good explanation for his actions in the Abramoff affair.

A solid campaign

The Cagle team deserves credit for keeping their cool and holding back their biggest trump card until the last two weeks. And Cagle, personally, is a strong candidate. An old city editor pal taught me a basic truth of politics: Good candidates win elections. A good campaign, therefore, begins with a good candidate.

If you've met Cagle in person -- as I did on July 2 in Stockbridge -- you know that he is very friendly and approachable. With his boyish blue eyes and his "American dream" story of growing up as the son of a single mom, Cagle is really strong with women voters (as Towery's polls indicated). And as a former football standout, he also has that "one of the guys" quality that most male voters relate to -- he doesn't seem stiff or stuck-up. With 12 years in the state senate, Cagle is very well-informed about the issue, and can sit and talk politics with either "insiders" or ordinary voters.

Cagle's down-to-earth qualities helped him win over one key supporter: My brother. Kirby accompanied me as photographer for the July 2 Henry County event for Cagle, and spent several minutes talking to the candidate and came away convinced that Cagle is a good man. So Kirby got himself some yard signs and became a one-man campaign team for Cagle. (Now, Mr. Cagle: About those highway projects ....)

Reed's future

Reed now will go through the 7 stages of grief over his defeat, but his future is still bright. He's still got his career skills as a political pro and those skills are worth money. I don't think he'll face criminal charges over the Abramoff affair. Not now. He's no longer the kind of "ham sandwich" a Democrat D.A. would find appealing.

Were I Reed, I think I'd spend the next few months out of the limelight, working behind the scenes to help the Republicans win in November. And then I'd start going around to megachurches in Georgia, giving "testimony" about the evils of corruption. I'd take as my text Proverbs 14:12, "There is a way that seems right unto man ...."

Meanwhile, Reed could start doing some charitable work (with a net worth of $4.6 million, he can afford to be charitable) in support of Christian education in Georgia. Reed is a prodigious fundraiser, so why not put those skills to good use, raising money for scholarships at church schools in Georgia? What most evangelical grade schools lack is an endowment -- a pot of money earning interest to pay for improvements, to hire faculty, to give scholarships to deserving students.

If Reed would work to become a benefactor to Christian education in Georgia, he might go a long way toward repairing his reputation among conservative evangelicals. He might also convice more secular Georgians that he is something other than a political hustler. But he would definitely be doing the Lord's work by helping kids escape the toils of the government school establishment.

And who knows? In 2008 or 2010, maybe Reed could run for office again. It might not be the kind of thing that would be a stepping-stone to the presidency -- as it was said Reed viewed this year's lieutenant governor's race -- but America needs congressmen and senators, too.

-- McCAIN

P.S.:
And if anybody cares, I'm looking at a clock that says 3:35 a.m. But now it's time to go home to the Missus.