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A decade ago, Ralph Reed was the face of a thundering evangelical movement that helped wash away the Democratic Party’s half-century hold on Congress. And because of those efforts, evangelicals enjoy influence and entree into a conservative Congress and White House; Reed’s campaign helped put believer George W. Bush in the White House. But these aren’t salad days for either Reed or the Christian Coalition, the organization he helped bring to prominence. Reed’s journey has been a headline grabber: He forsook the role of kingmaker to begin his own seemingly predestined political ascension, one that possibly ended this summer after a stunningly lopsided defeat for lieutenant governor in a Georgia Republican primary to an all but anonymous state senator. Reed might be the right hand of God, as some have dubbed him, but he was also pen pals with Jack Abramoff at an inopportune time, say insiders. Considerably less conspicuous has been the Christian Coalition’s slow demise. Born out of Pat Robertson’s failed presidential bid in 1988, the Christian Coalition quickly became a national force, giving religious voters a cohesive network to champion — and threaten — state and federal legislation. But since Reed and favorite whipping boy President Bill Clinton left the scene, it has spiraled in a downward trajectory, losing lobbying and electoral strength, and, former insiders say, it is now a shadow operation, surviving on little more than name recognition. “There’s no reason to pay attention to them,” says James Guth, an expert on politics and religion at Furman University in South Carolina. “They’re dead. They may continue for a while in name only, but I don’t see how you overcome their financial problems.” The coalition is suffering from a litany of lawsuits and creditor debt that have spurred state affiliates to dissociate themselves from the national office in Washington, D.C. In March one of the coalition’s most effective and financially viable chapters, the Christian Coalition of Iowa, reorganized and cut ties, becoming the Christian Alliance. Then, in late July, the former Christian Coalition of Ohio, in a critically important electoral state, did the same. Despite the defections, Christian Coalition leaders claim those states will open new affiliates and that the national organization remains a political player. “I don’t know why people think we’ve gone away,” says Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition and the former South Carolina coordinator for Robertson’s presidential run. “We’re here every day. Just because you have opinions from other people, that can’t be the obituary for our organization.” But while the money is a symptom, state chapter leaders say it is the abandonment of a cohesive grass-roots network — the very nexus that catapulted the organization to power — that is the root cause of the group’s problems. “We operated despite the noose around our neck,” says Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa affiliate since 2000, referring to the national office’s debt. “Today the Christian Coalition is nothing more than a self-serving apparatus for Roberta Combs. Over the last six years there was a complete lack of leadership. We used to be in constant contact with D.C. lobbyists. Now nothing.” Scheffler says the operation is authoritarian, with Combs unwilling to accept feedback from her base. “This is a culmination of a diminished presence on Capitol Hill,” says Chris Long, executive director of Ohio’s new association. “It is about a lack of leadership at the top. It’s the straying away from the original mission.” Long points to the stem cell bill that Congress approved and Bush later vetoed. Instead of having a voice in the debate, Long says, the Christian Coalition was inexplicably focused elsewhere. “They were putting out press releases on net neutrality,” says Long. “And that’s all they’ve done recently — press releases.” Long says the decision to become autonomous was surprisingly easy. The vote among board members was unanimous. Now, he, Scheffler, and other local evangelical grass-roots leaders are beginning talks about supplanting the Christian Coalition with a new national alliance. “Right now we’re focused on the midterm elections,” says Long. “Sometime in the next year something will emerge that will have a loose association with all the state chapters. We’re looking for a national face to lead.” Long says there needs to be a stronger voice on immigration, abortion, stem cells, and, of course, the ubiquitous debate over gay marriage. Both Long and Scheffler say their state chapters and many others remain stronger than the national office, as demonstrated by evangelical-voter turnout in 2004, and that in this era of government it is a missed opportunity not to have a cohesive voice in Washington. “There are other groups, like the Family Research Council — their strength is working intricately on Capitol Hill and helping with legislation,” says Long. “But there continues to be a need for a group to organize the grass roots that has its base in D.C.” Under the leadership of Reed and Robertson, the Christian Coalition was a dominant force in the U.S. Capitol and in state legislatures across the country. “What made the D.C. office effective was the muscle behind it in the field,” says Heidi Stirrup, a senior legislative adviser at Venable and former legislative director for the Christian Coalition. “They could shut down a switchboard with phone calls if there was action taken on a bill they opposed. That’s what made them so powerful. The Hill was lobbying the Christian Coalition to support an initiative.” That was in the mid-90s, at the zenith of the coalition’s power. Stirrup says it was a combination of Robertson’s charisma and Reed’s efficient management. The two deployed a dozen lobbyists on Capitol Hill, had an operating budget of more than $26 million, distributed tens of millions of voter guides, and controlled the allegiances of thousands of grass-roots workers. Then Reed departed, and Clinton left office. The candle that once burned at both ends for the Christian Coalition was extinguished. “When there’s a Republican Congress and Republican president, the evangelical agenda isn’t under threat,” says Stirrup. Robertson resigned as president in 2001. That was shortly after a series of controversial remarks about, among other things, 9/11 and China’s one-child policy were met with shock and disapproval from conservatives. Michael Cromartie, vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says the name Christian Coalition is now both a boon and a burden. “It has the unfortunate albatross of the name Pat Robertson attached to it,” he notes. “Recent inappropriate comments by Mr. Robertson have made him somewhat of an embarrassment not only to liberals but also to conservatives, including even fellow religious conservatives.” Robertson’s recent misfires include declaring that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez should be assassinated and the State Department should be nuked, as well as calling for Christians to mount a “prayer offensive” for the retirement of the Supreme Court’s three most liberal justices. Today, Jim Backlin is the Christian Coalition’s lone lobbying presence. Last year the organization spent $600,000 to lobby elected officials on issues ranging from child tax credits to marriage. That number was down from $4,380,000 in 1998, according to Senate lobby disclosure forms. The D.C. office closed its doors in 2002, a post office box number serving as its only toehold in the District. Revenue is reported to be around $1 million, though Combs declined to give a specific number. “We won’t know about our revenue until the end of the year,” she says. And with revenue slipping, debt has mounted. Lawsuits for unpaid bills materialized exponentially. The coalition’s longtime outside counsel, Virginia Beach’s Huff, Poole & Mahoney, claimed it was owed $69,729 in unpaid legal fees. (The suit was settled recently for less than that.) Even the voter-education pamphlets the organization became famous for — it reportedly distributed 70 million in the 2000 election — are now called into question. “They will send out a few voter guides by priority mail and then inflate the figure to 40 million or 50 million voter guides. In reality it’s probably a fraction of that,” says Iowa’s Scheffler. During the decline other organizations have filled the vacuum. The Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and the Southern Baptist Convention have cut into the Christian Coalition’s demographic. “They’re also a victim of the religious right diversifying,” says Cromartie. “When your original goal is to get religious conservatives involved in state politics, and that happens, then you’ve worked yourself out of a job. In one sense they could declare victory and close doors.” Pundits also point to the difficulty social movements have historically had in being a cohesive political weapon. “Social movements have a hard time making a transition to being a lobbying force,” says Guth of Furman University. “And the Christian Coalition was even less successful than others.” But Combs says the organization is ready to adapt and regain its status as a driving force. “Our influence hasn’t waned,” she says. “We want to be a true Christian organization. More than abortion. More than a couple hot-button topics. We want to have a voice about minimum wage and net neutrality and the environment. We have a new vision.” Ironically, Cromartie says making that vision influential again could depend on a familiar foe returning to the White House and galvanizing evangelicals. “Hillary Clinton might be their only hope.”
Nathan Carlile can be contacted at [email protected].

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