Faith and Freedom Coalition, “a 21st-century version of the Christian Coalition on steroids,” is leading the effort
by Adele M. Stan - A mere 10 days since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch survived the recall election launched against them by state’s liberal coalition, Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, is ebullient as he takes the stage at his organization’s Washington, D.C., gala on the final night of FFC’s national conference at the Renaissance Hotel.
Reed has good reason to be happy; his return to the religious-right spotlight is a turn of events that few would have bet on. Since he first burst on the political scene in the 1990s as the wunderkind executive director of Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, Reed’s political trajectory took him so close to the sun that his wings nearly melted. When George W. Bush signed him as a strategist for the 2000 presidential campaign, Reed’s career soared — only to crash four years later with revelations of his involvement in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Along the way, he made a lot of money, and is reported to live with his wife and two of his four children (the other two are grown) in a house in Duluth, Ga., worth$2.2 million.
The boyish contours of his face now marked with the occasional line, Reed, at 51, still conveys a youthful vigor, fit and trim in a well-tailored dark suit, with his full head of hair brushed neatly back to display a smooth forehead. Taking no small measure of credit for the triumph of Walker and Kleefisch, Reed boasts of the 600,000 voter contacts he says his organization made to get conservative Wisconsinites to the polls on June 5. Later that evening, Reed will present to Kleefisch, who is billed as Wisconsin’s answer to Sarah Palin, FFC’s Courage in Leadership Award. (Kleefisch will also accept the same award for Walker, who did not attend.)
If you like what happened in Wisconsin, Reed implies, you’re going to love the 2012 presidential race, when FFC reaches out to 27.1 million conservative voters; he promises that FFC will contact each of them between seven to 12 times to either get them to the polls, or better yet, vote early in states that permit it. Consider it payback, if you will, for the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.
The day after the election Barack Obama won by a wide margin, Reed says, he woke up feeling “like I’d been hit by a truck.” Speaking of the Obama campaign, Reed explains: “We were embarrassed. They ran circles around us.”
“I founded Faith and Freedom Coalition because I vowed that as long as I was alive, we were never going to get out-hustled on the ground again,” he told a group of activists earlier in the day.
Reed has described FFC, launched in 2009, as “a 21st century version of the Christian Coalition on steroids.” Reed’s new organization seeks to meld the religious right with the Tea Party movement through the use of voter turnout strategies. But however successful he was in bringing right-wing evangelical voters to the polls during his tenure at the Christian Coalition, his managerial skills and business ethics appeared to be less than stellar.
When Reed left the Christian Coalition in 1997, the organization was in tatters, under investigation by the FEC for the kind of “electioneering” prohibited for tax-exempt non-profits by the I.R.S., and internally riven due to allegations made by chief financial officer Judy Liebert that a firm whose principals were friends of Reed’s had over-billed the coalition to the tune of $1 million — and been paid.
In 2004, Reed was implicated, though not charged, in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal when his role as a lobbyist on behalf of the gambling interests of a Choctaw Indian tribe was disclosed in a damaging Senate investigation. While the revelations derailed his attempt to win the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in the State of Georgia, the very religious-right friends he snookered in the Abramoff scandal appear to have forgiven him, according to Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches.
Once again cloaked in the cape of a Christian crusader, Reed is back on the trail, doing what he does best: getting religious right-wingers to the polls.
Back at the Faith and Freedom Coalition gala, and with an eye to the media, perhaps, Reed issues what sounds like both a promise and a warning. “We’re not just playing around,” he says. “We’re not shadowboxing; we are playing for keeps. We’re playing for the most valuable prize in the history of the human race and that’s the United States of America — and we are not going to lose.”
Eyes on the Prize
For Reed, however, there’s likely another prize to collect, win or lose. It may be wrapped up in the old Red, White and Blue, but this prize comes in a distinctive shade of green. AlterNet learned that, in order to identify and make its 600,000 voter contacts in Wisconsin — many of them by text messaging and e-mail subscriptions — Faith and Freedom Coalition contracted with Millennium Marketing, a division of Century Strategies, a political consulting firm whose CEO happens to be Ralph Reed.
AlterNet contacted Billy Kirkland, FFC’s national field director, by phone on June 29 to inquire about FFC’s use of Millennium. “We did use them and they were a big help in Wisconsin,” Kirkland said. “It was one of those things where any time you can use a new technology to reach voters and educate voters on issues that are important to them — we’re trying to be on the forefront of that, so I’d be more than happy to respond by e-mail, but I’ve got a 4:00 [meeting] I’ve got to walk into.”
So I e-mailed him a few questions, including: “How much did FFC pay Millennium Marketing for what appears to be a broad array of services provided in the campaign against the Wisconsin recall?” At press time, he had yet to respond.
To billionaires willing to stake nice little chunks of their fortunes on the outcome of the 2012 races — presidential, Senate and gubernatorial — a little greasing of Ralph Reed’s palm could be deemed a small price to pay, especially when they can launder their contributions, without fear of disclosure, through Faith and Freedom Coalition, a 501(c)(4) non-profit under the U.S. tax code. This type of organization is not required to disclose its donors to the general public. However untoward, none of this is illegal — not the contracting of Reed’s own for-profit firm by the non-profit he runs, not the undisclosed sums from undisclosed donors that help to get carefully profiled voters to the polls.
Changing the Model
Reed isn’t in the business of persuasion; he doesn’t waste his time on voters who aren’t already on his team. His deal is to make sure those potential voters are first registered and then activated — not unlike what the labor unions do in their get-out-the-vote campaigns (though likely with fewer billionaires to shell out for their efforts). This is where the winning margin in most elections actually resides, Reed explained at a strategy session during his conference. In fact, he suggests, the success of FFC’s voter turnout operation accounted for why the polls that predicted a tight race between Walker and Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett in the Wisconsin recall election were so wrong.
Pollsters, he explained, work from a model of the electorate that is based on the previous election: X percentages of various demographic groups. Increase the percentage of any one of those demographic groups — say Christian conservatives — and the model on which the poll is based is no longer valid.
“So, when you go out in your county, and you start a Faith and Freedom chapter or you work with the local party or with a local candidate or do whatever it is you’re doing, and you build an organization that knocks on every door, and calls every voter and registers lots of new people to vote, guess what?” he asked. “The turnout model’s wrong.”
That’s what happened in the Virginia gubernatorial race, Reed said, the year after Obama won the state by 5 points in the presidential election. In the 2008 race, a mere 33 percent of the Virginia electorate, Reed claimed, was conservative. But in the gubernatorial race, the Faith and Freedom Coalition turned out a religious-right base for Bob McDonnell, now considered to be a contender for the Republican vice-presidential nomination.
A talented and energetic presenter, Reed, in his strategy session titled “The Keys to Victory in 2012,” peppered his audience with numbers in service of his theory, punctuated with questions he answered himself. Periodically, he asked his audience: “You with me?”
In Virginia, Reed said, “…we ran the Faith and Freedom program, and we contacted every social conservative and fiscal conservative voter an average of seven times — we mailed ‘em, we phoned ‘em, we knocked on their door, we e-mailed them,” Reed said. “What percentage of the electorate was conservative in 2009? Forty-one percent, according to exit polls. So the electorate went from 33 percent conservative to 41 percent conservative.”
McDonnell’s pollster, Glen Bolger, had projected a 10-point lead for his candidate, according to Reed, but McDonnell actually won by 18. Where did those other eight points come from? Subtract 33 from 41 and you’ll find your answer, Reed said.
This year, consequently, Virginia is hardly a state Obama can take for granted. There, Reed said, FFC is building a file of 350,000 conservative households that will account for some 600,000 voters. In Florida, where Reed said Obama’s 2008 margin of victory was 200,000 votes, Reed has set his sights on some 225,000 social conservatives who are not currently registered to vote, but who will be, if he has anything to say about it.
In the Wisconsin recall, Reed continued, FFC’s 600,000 voter contacts ranged in form from mobile media, e-mail and snail-mail to old-fashioned door-knocking and the method that became the hallmark of the Christian Coalition under Reed’s leadership during its heyday: the church-distributed voter guide. FFC doled out 100,000 of them, he said.
“So there were voters in Wisconsin who were getting e-mail from us, they were getting a text message from us, when they went to church on Sunday, our voter guide was in their church bulletin, and on Monday they got a knock on their door,” Reed said. “Okay?”
After the session, I asked Reed why, if the unions are as good at turning out their base as everyone believes they are, did their Democratic allies lose the recall race.
“I think they did their job,” he said. “We just did our job better…they worked to get their vote out, we worked even harder to get our vote out…But in ’08, they got their vote out and we didn’t get our vote out, and Obama won by a landslide. And that’s what happens when you don’t get your vote out.”
Doing ‘Better’ With a Bit of Help
But Reed had more than a little help in doing his job “better,” as he said. First, he was able to deploy sophisticated mobile marketing technology that the other side apparently didn’t have. Second, he was able to sync his efforts to those of an old friend, Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity (the astroturf group founded by the Koch brothers) and Reed’s former business partner at Century Strategies. (In fact, Reed’s public unveiling of his Faith and Freedom Coalition took place at an Atlanta rally, co-sponsored by AFP, staged in opposition to healthcare reform during the 2009 summer of town-hall rage.
The Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity was one of the organization’s first state-level entities, and was long run by the hard-working but notoriously dirty political operative Mark Block, who left the organization in 2011 to run Herman Cain’s presidential campaign. Most of the politicians on Wisconsin’s right-wing roster owe all or part of their careers to AFP: U.S. Representatives Reid Ribble and Sean Duffy, elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave, were nurtured under the AFP wing, as was Gov. Scott Walker. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is a favorite speaker at AFP gatherings. Reince Priebus, who chaired the state Republican Party before winning the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, at the time it was implicated in a Milwaukee vote-caging scheme executed by AFP in 2010.
When the uprising against Walker’s attack on teachers and other public workers began in the state capitol in 2011, AFP launched a “Stand With Walker” campaign that it carried through to the day of the recall vote, organizing rallies and bus tours, and flooding the airwaves with advertisements.
By July of last year, Faith and Freedom Coalition was sending out direct-mail fundraising letters touting its voter canvassing efforts for the Wisconsin recall. In a letter obtained by Religion Dispatches’ Sarah Posner, FFC executive director Gary Marx, who co-founded Century Strategies with Reed, used language that virtually mirrored the AFP messaging on taxes and labor unions:
Please join…the fight with 100 plus FFC activists who will be going door-to-door encouraging the Badger State to vote for candidates who share our values of lower taxes, less government, faith, and who will stand up to union thugs who support Obama’s tax and spend solutions. We need your financial support to make our Wisconsin get-out-the-vote program work.
A theme common to Walker’s campaign and ads from multiple sources was the notion that the recall was somehow anti-democratic, when, in fact, it is about as direct an expression of democracy as one can find. John Nichols, Wisconsinite and labor advocate, writing in the Nation, tells of a ubiquitous ad carrying that message that appeared in the final days of the campaign, paid for by a shadowy super-PAC called the Campaign for American Values. Of the $54,265 in total receipts collected by CAV, per its last FEC filing, $50,000 came from a single donor, Rebekah Mercer, daughter of hedge -fund manager Robert Mercer, who often makes common cause with David Koch. More than a third of those PAC receipts were delivered to Herman Cain Solutions, which is run by Cain (who once famously described himself as Charles and David Koch’s “brother from another mother“) and Mark Block, the former state director for the Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin chapter. You with me?
So, it was hardly surprising that Reed took up the anti-recall line in his brief conversation with me after his strategy session.
“I was on the ground in Wisconsin a little bit but I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on it — but there were folks who were on the ground who told me that at a certain point, the people of Wisconsin had just had it up to here,” Reed said. “They just wanted it to end. It was like, well, when does this end? The guy won an election, you’re trying to negate an election, you’re trying to recall everybody, and that’s what elections are for. So I think that helped us on the margin…”
The other advantage Reed appears to have had in Wisconsin was technology. Faith and Freedom Coalition, he said, sent some quarter of a million text message over the course of the recall campaign. During his “Keys to Victory” strategy session, Reed urged audience members to attend a conference session called “Champion the Vote” that would address the cell-phone-based marketing techniques used by FFC during the recall campaign, and he talked up the role played by LSN Mobile.
At the “Champion the Vote” panel, Scott Foernsler, described as the chief revenue officer of LSN Mobile, was joined by Rick Furr, described as co-founder and president, of the Mobile Sports Group, along with political consultant Adam Jones and FFC Florida coordinator Brett Doster. Billy Kirkland, the FFC national field director, served as moderator.
Foernsler presented himself as an expert in micro-targeting, the marketing technology that allows users to serve up advertisements on Internet-based platforms customized to whomever is viewing. For instance, when you go to a Web site that is festooned with ads from places where you happen to shop — or whose Web sites you’ve recently browsed — you’ve been micro-targeted. Another viewer looking at the same Web site will not see the same ads.
The New York Times describes political micro-targeting this way:
In the last few years, companies that collect data on how consumers behave both online and off and what charitable donations they make have combined that vast store of information with voter registration records.As a result, microtargeting allows campaigns to put specific messages in front of specific voters — something that has increased in sophistication with the large buckets of data available to political consultants.
Foernsler told his FFC audience that the streams of data now available to digital advertisers allow political geeks like him to profile individual voters in much greater detail than was possible before. Where a voter profile developed by traditional means might be based on the answers to a series of 10 or so questions, micro-targeters build databases of voters that answer as many as 65 questions, right down to the kind of vehicle a target drives.
The digital possibilities also allow for internal polling based on much larger samples of voters, Foernsler said. Traditional models might work from a sample of, say, 1,000 voters, but today’s technologies make feasible polling that works with a sample five times as large.
On its Web site, LSN touts its prowess at a particular type of mobile advertising that is pegged to local news sites through a proprietary app that, in a May 2011 press release, LSN says has been downloaded by 5 million smart-phone users. “That means one in every 60 U.S. households has accessed the app to glean local content,” reads the release.”
It’s not hard to see where that kind of technology, combined with micro-targeting marketing strategies, could be very useful in upping turnout.
Various targeting strategies were deployed in the Wisconsin recall, added Rick Furr, who spoke as if his company had worked with Faith and Freedom Coalition in the campaign. In an offhand remark, Furr mentioned that his Sports Media Group counted among its clients the Home Depot, the retailer co-founded by right-wing billionaire sugar-daddy Kenneth Langone.
Furr explained how he targeted somewhere between 17,000 – 20,000 conservative Wisconsin voters for text messages on the recall that included a link to the Faith and Freedom Coalition voter guide — a link that was opened by 30 percent of those who received the text message. (See graphic, taken from Millennium Marketing’s promotional packet, here.) Like the Christian Coalition voter guides of yore, the FFC guides list a number of deceptively framed issues in a table format, with the name and photo of its preferred candidate (in this case, Scott Walker) topping a red column noting whether the candidate “SUPPORTS” or “OPPOSES” those rhetorically presented positions. A photo of the opposition’s candidate (Tom Barrett, of course) tops a blue column.
Faith and Freedom Coalition’s guide for the gubernatorial recall election listed six issues: “abortion on demand,” “parental choice in education,” “taxpayer-funded abortion,” “same-sex marriage,” “eliminating the death tax,” and “opposes any new taxes on Wisconsin families.”
Text messages, Furr explained, are an especially effective means of communicating in elections, because, unlike e-mails or snail-mail appeals, they are almost always opened by recipients.
Nonetheless, Furr also ran an e-mail program for FFC in Wisconsin. One effort of which he is most proud is the targeting of conservative small-business executives. Furr said his firm collected more than 51,000 e-mail addresses in that target group, and of those targeted, only 43 individuals opted out of receiving future e-mails.
Furr also lauded the fundraising effectiveness of text messaging, especially when combined with micro-targeting. As an example, he said he could reach into databases and filter for Catholics who gave to particular charities or causes. Then he could solicit donations for the Faith and Freedom Coalition by text message through a link that immediately generated a thank-you message to the donor — all for a mere 50-cent transaction fee. If an organization that raised funds this way wanted to do follow-up thank-you calls, that could be added to the package for a low rate of 7.5 percent of the donation, and a call center would handle the task.
Brett Doster of FFC’s Florida chapter mentioned another important target group for his organization: early voters. In states where early voting is offered, it’s a boon to ideologically driven groups, Doster said, because people who are inclined to vote early are mostly “philosophical voters.”
To political consultants such as the panel’s Adam Jones, early voters are a key to accurate internal polling, Jones explained, since 50 percent of voters in the demographic groups he’s eyeing “vote before election day.” A “dynamic data program” that can identify whomever voted early can help campaign operatives get a sense of what’s taking place on the ground.
All Not As It Seems: The Millennium Connection
As the panel drew to a close, Rick Furr made a pitch to those in the room who lead local advocacy groups to engage his services. Those who requested them could get a packet containing information on the services his firm provides on their way out of the room.
But the packet Furr was passing out touted not his Sports Media Group, but the services of Millennium Marketing, the subsidiary of Ralph Reed’s Century Strategy. Tucked inside the folder were two business cards for Millennium Marketing executive directors: Rick Furr and Scott Foernsler.
I called Furr and Foernsler at the numbers listed on their Millennium Marketing business cards. In both cases, I got voice mail. Furr’s outgoing message identified him as “Rick Furr of the Sports Media Group.” Neither Furr nor Foernsler returned my calls. At Century Strategies (Millennium’s parent company), I spoke to a woman named Martha who would not give her last name, but who promised that Ralph Reed’s assistant would call me to confirm questions I had about who was on Century’s payroll. She has yet to call.
One of the case studies included in the packet features the work done by Furr and Foernsler on behalf of the Faith and Freedom Coalition in the Wisconsin recall election. It reads:
OBJECTIVE: Reach Wisconsin Republican Christians & Republican Registered Voters across the state, especially in rural and exurban areas. We reached over 327,143 Wisconsin Republican Christians voters [sic] by Email and SMS promoting our voter guide and reminding people to vote…
Whose voter guide? Millennium Marketing’s voter guide or the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s? (The accompanying photo, on Millennium Marketing stationery, is of the FFC voter guide.) Both the Faith and Freedom Coalition and Century Strategies occupy the same building in Duluth, Ga., in suites next door to one another.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition case study in the Millennium Marketing packet features an endorsement from FFC National Field Director Billy Kirkland:
We are very happy with the results in being able to target by zip codes, voter districts, demographics, geographic, lifestyle, consumer interests, income spending, net worth and behavioral information. Using interactive Marketing Services pertaining to SMS, Banner Advertising, and both Consumer & B2B Email. [sic] We have seen positive results and plan on incorporating this programs into our national & local campaigns in 2012. Building our database is priceless!
When I reached Kirkland for comment, he seemed caught off-guard by the inclusion of his quote in the Millennium Marketing packet. “I’d love to know what that endorsement — Millennium Marketing?” he said. So I read the quote to him.
“I use some pretty big words in that quote,” he said. Then, saying he had to go into a meeting, he concluded the call.
A Divine Appointment
In his closing remarks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition gala, Reed stated his goals for the organization, one of which is to have a $100 million budget by 2015.
In 2010, according to FFC’s most recently available IRS filing, the organization took in $5.5 million, and ended up $300,000 in the red. But its intake was up astronomically from the year before, when in 2009, FFC claimed receipts of a mere $743,000. If Reed was able to increase his intake by anywhere near the same margin the following year, his current budget may be in excess of $25 million.
While media focused their attention on better-known right-wing groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Reed has been quietly building his scrappy little organization in the hopes of winning Mitt Romney the presidency, and a nice financial windfall for Reed, who helped engineer George W. Bush’s 2000 victory for the Republican presidential nomination.
Calling his faithful to action, Reed urged them to engage their friends and neighbors in his 2012 voter turnout effort. “I want you to consider this a divine appointment,” he said. Then he left the stage to make way for Rebecca Kleefisch, lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, the intended exemplar of what Reed could accomplish on a polarized electoral landscape.
Petite and attractive, in a shiny green silk skirt suit and with a Sarah Palin-style hairdo, Kleefisch told the story of the Wisconsin recall in the right-wing style, painting her opponents as dangerous and threatening. She, too, called upon the Faith and Freedom Coalition audience to action.
“My hope is that Wisconsin encourages others to lead with servants’ hearts,” she said.
This piece has been corrected. The description of the FFC voter guide previously said it listed candidates’ position as “yes” or “no,” and was framed as all ‘yes” notations for Scott Walker.
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