Social Conservatives Launch New Effort in Florida
Ralph Reed, the lobbyist and former Christian Coalition leader is joining with Florida social conservatives to launch a new political committee aimed at igniting the Republican right and pouring thousands of dollars into state campaigns next year.
Reed’s newly formed Faith and Freedom Coalition formally reached agreement with the state’s Christian Coalition to open its newest state affiliate here, where activists say social conservatives are languishing.
Reed, who was tarred by his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal, reemerged in June with a nationwide effort to register more conservative voters – particularly blacks, Hispanics and women -- and push them to the polls.
Florida is the largest of a half-dozen states where the Faith and Freedom Coalition now has chapters, which some have dubbed a 2.0 version of the Christian Coalition, intended to draw younger, Internet-savvy social conservatives.
“Our goal within Florida is to open a chapter in every county and mobilize social conservatives,” said Jack St. Martin, chief operating officer of Reed’s coalition. “We plan to make a difference in many elections in Florida.”
The organization plans to be involved in state legislative races along with statewide campaigns in Florida next year, including the competitive U.S. Senate Republican primary between Gov. Charlie Crist and former House Speaker Marco Rubio, St. Martin said.
Along with grassroots organizing, the Faith and Freedom Coalition is forming a federal political action committee to pour cash into campaigns across the nation, including Florida.
Bill Stephens, executive director of the state’s Christian Coalition, is joining the Florida affiliate as its leader.
“We think there are a lot of social conservatives who have stayed at home in Florida the past two election cycles because they didn’t like what they heard or saw from the candidates,” Stephens said. “We hope to change that next year.”
The new organization was created last weekend at the Florida Christian Coalition’s 20th anniversary “God and Country” celebration in Orlando. Speaking at the event was Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who condemned President Obama’s health care initiative as “something like what the Nazis’ did.”
“It was a pretty red meat speech,” conceded former Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who stepped down in June as executive director of the state’s Christian Coalition, and is now helping Rubio’s Senate campaign.
Organizers contend that Florida voters who call themselves social conservatives showed little interest in the 2006 or 2008 campaigns.
Three years ago, Republican Tom Gallagher moved abruptly to the political right in running for governor as an anti-abortion candidate supporting school prayer, private-school vouchers and streamlined government.
But after a three-decade political career as a Republican moderate, Gallagher failed to draw significant support from social conservatives and was soundly defeated by Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP primary, even though Crist acknowledged a “live-and-let-live” approach on the benchmark same-sex marriage issue.
Now challenged by Rubio, Crist has been moving toward the political right lately. But Stephens said Crist has long benefited from the perception by many activists that he is already a social conservative.
“I think he’s a very good politician,” Stephens said. “On some days, he’s very good on our issues. On other days, he’s with someone else on our issues.”
Social conservatives also were overwhelmed in last year’s presidential contest in Florida and nationwide, with Republican nominee John McCain having long distanced himself from the party’s right.
Reed was hired by former Republican presidential contender Pat Robertson as the Christian Coalition’s first executive director two decades ago. Reed later formed Century Strategies, a political consulting and public relations firm based in Atlanta, became Georgia Republican Party chairman and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor there in 2006.
Reed’s ties to Abramoff, the now-imprisoned lobbyist, stemmed from receiving millions of dollars in payments for running religious-based opposition in Alabama and elsewhere to the opening of new Indian casinos – money that came from a rival tribe already in the casino business.
St. Martin, who ran Orlando Republican lawyer Will McBride’s 2006 Senate Republican primary campaign against Katherine Harris, said Reed’s business interests are unrelated to the new coalition, which he’s serving as voluntary chairman.
“There’s a real firewall between Century Strategies and what’s happening with the coalition,” St. Martin said.