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Cagle's victory in Republican primary reflects story of his life

Story updated at 10:46 PM on Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The statewide race that drew national attention ended with a whimper Tuesday night. When it was all said and done, the negatives against the man Time magazine once anointed "The Right Hand of God" proved too great to win the support of the majority of Georgia's Republicans.

Ralph Reed entered the race for lieutenant governor in early 2005 as a runaway favorite to win, with off-the-charts name recognition and a slate of nationally prominent supporters. In the end, though, the former Christian Coalition executive director, Georgia GOP chairman and political operative, who boasted "the most effective, grass-roots, get-out-the-vote effort that this state (had) ever seen in a down-ballot campaign," proved unable to defeat a little-known state senator for his party's nomination.

Ninth-generation Georgian Casey Cagle defeated his Miami-raised opponent - who was running for elective office for the first time amid rampant speculation he was seeking the office only as a steppingstone to the governorship - both by communicating his positive vision for Georgia, and by convincing voters Reed's values were "for sale to the highest bidder."

Cagle's victory is being viewed by many as a triumph of traditional Southern values over corporate, for-profit religiosity, and it unquestionably showed that, regardless of political credentials, character does matter to Georgia's voters. The dark cloud of Reed's association with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and all the negatives it entailed, from the Indian gaming and money-laundering scandal, to lobbying against regulation of the inhuman working conditions in the Marianas Islands, to, finally, a lawsuit filed a week before the election alleging the pair defrauded a Texas Indian tribe, added up to more than even the smooth-talking icon of the pseudo-Religious Right could weather.

The Republican ticket for November's general election will be stronger with Cagle as the nominee for lieutenant governor. Cagle's 12 years of legislative experience and knowledge of policy issues will benefit him this fall. Should he be elected, he'll be able immediately to work with the Republican majority.

Twenty-one GOP state senators not only endorsed Cagle in the primary, but signed a letter to Reed asking him to drop out of the race for the good of the state and party. This casts doubt on whether Reed would have had any impact on the Senate from the already weak position of lieutenant governor, or whether legislators would have worked to further weaken him and his position, if he had gone on to win the general election.

Beyond his legislative experience and mainstream electoral viability, Cagle improves the GOP's chances this fall - and takes away Democrats' best weapon - simply by not being Ralph Reed. If there was any question which candidate Democrats were prepared to mobilize against this fall, it was answered at the July 9 Atlanta Press Club debate, where Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor spoke repeatedly, not of the need not to defeat the GOP, but to defeat Ralph Reed. Polls repeatedly showed Reed as a drag on the Republican ticket in the general election, a concern for what is still expected to be a tight gubernatorial race. With Cagle as the nominee, that's no longer a factor.

With Cagle, Georgia Republicans have a nominee who can potentially reunite a party bitterly divided by the last year's campaigning. An online poll, hosted by Georgia political Web log Peach Pundit, asked readers whether they would support the lieutenant governor nominee. A whopping 50.8 percent of respondents said they were Cagle supporters, and wouldn't vote for Reed in the general election. In contrast, only 11.5 percent said they were Reed supporters, and wouldn't support Cagle. This polling demonstrated the divisiveness Reed brought to the state and the GOP by running for office while he was a figure in a Washington scandal.

Cagle's against-all-odds victory was a parallel of his life story to this point. He was raised by a single mother, who often worked multiple jobs to provide for her family, but "never took a dime of government assistance." A public school product who never graduated from college, Cagle rose from unskilled laborer to successful self-made business owner. It was that life experience, combined with a desire to do good for Georgia, which propelled Cagle from being such an afterthought in this race that he was one of five attendees at his own candidate tailgate here in Athens last football season - while crowds of people fawned over Reed at his site up the street - to being arguably the greatest political giant-killer in recent memory, if not in Georgia primary history.

Jeff Emanuel, a Special Operations military veteran who served in Iraq, is a senior at the University of Georgia. He serves as public-relations director for the UGA College Republicans, the largest student political organization in the country. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the UGA College Republicans.

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 072006

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