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On the night that Ralph Reed and his wife celebrated their 19th wedding anniversary, the couple had also hoped to celebrate something else: a victory for Reed in Georgia's Republican primary for lieutenant governor. But Georgia voters decided differently, and by 10:00 p.m. on July 19 Reed conceded the race to Casey Cagle. By early the next morning, Cagle had claimed 56 percent of the vote.
Reed told supporters that his wedding anniversary put the loss in perspective and that "I'm glad I ran." But the defeat was a deflating end to a primary that Reed, a well-known Republican and a savvy political operative, had once seemed sure to win.
Georgia's primary elections were the first in a rapid succession of nearly two dozen state primaries that will follow in the next three months before general elections in November. State primaries don't typically garner national attention, but this year a handful have higher stakes than usual and have drawn a wider following.
Georgia's primary grabbed national headlines from the beginning when Reed announced his candidacy. The former executive director of the Christian Coalition had also played a significant role in President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, and pundits speculated that his run for lieutenant governor was the first step in a plan for higher offices.
Reed initially drew widespread support and raised funds at a record pace. But his campaign met trouble when Senate records revealed that he had leveraged anti-gambling Christians to shut down the competition for casino-rich Indian tribal clients of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Though Reed expressed regret for some of his work for Abramoff, he also doggedly avoided questions about the details of his involvement, including a paper trail indicating he used pass-through groups to obscure the tribal source of funds.
Reed's support and funding eroded as the Abramoff debacle gathered steam. One week before the primary a Texas tribe filed a lawsuit against Reed and Abramoff, alleging fraud against the pair.
David Donnelly, director of Campaign Money Watch, a watchdog group that spent $100,000 to campaign against Reed, called him "the first casualty of the Abramoff scandal." He added: "Politicians who place political money before morals ought to be very worried."
Reed and his supporters maintained that he was a victim of guilt by association. Georgia Republican senator Cecil Staton, who backed Reed, said Cagle used Reed's Abramoff connections to alienate Christian voters. "They stayed home," Staton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Not so, says Cagle supporter Jay Williams. Williams helped manage Cagle's campaign through his Stoneridge Group consulting firm and told WORLD that Christian conservatives were "a big part of our campaign." He said Cagle, who has served 12 years in the Georgia legislature, won because he is "a true-blue conservative."
Reed remained upbeat in the face of defeat and said he would back Cagle and other Republican candidates this fall. "Our values will win in November," he told supporters.
Georgia isn't the only state with a primary drawing national attention this summer. The Kansas Board of Education's Aug. 1 primary promises a showdown between conservatives and moderates on issues like Darwinism and sex education.
In a decision debated nationwide last year, a conservative majority on the Kansas board voted to approve a science curriculum that includes criticism of Darwinian theory. This year the majority encouraged schools to require permission slips for sex-education classes and to stress abstinence.
Four conservative incumbents on the board face moderate challengers from their own party who say they want to rescind some of the board's controversial decisions. Both groups say the results will test Republican sentiment on the hot-button issues. (See "Deliver us from chaos")
Connecticut is also gearing up for an Aug. 8 primary that may prove more dicey than originally expected. Prominent Democratic senator Joe Lieberman, originally considered an incumbent shoo-in, may face a tough race with challenger Ned Lamont. Lieberman's prospects have weakened in recent months under Democratic criticism for his support of the Iraq war.
The senator recently announced he would seek to run as an independent if he loses the primary. He's even registered to create a new independent political party, just in case. It's called "Connecticut for Lieberman."