Controversial GOP operative Rick Reed is no stranger to torpedoing Democrats — but now he’s turning his fire on Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken Rand Paul: 'Hatred for Trump' blocking research into ivermectin as COVID-19 treatment Masks and vaccines: What price freedom? MORE’s (R-Ky.) nascent presidential campaign.
Reed’s little-known conservative nonprofit group, the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America (FSPA), hijacked what was supposed to be a weeklong victory lap for Paul with a series of well-timed and meticulously-placed ads slamming his foreign policy positions.
As the president of FSPA, Reed is returning to a familiar role: He produced the 2004 ads from Swift Vets and POWs for Truth that targeted then-Sen. John KerryJohn Kerry Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington Biden confirms 30 percent global methane reduction goal, urges 'highest possible ambitions' 9/11 and US-China policy: The geopolitics of distraction MORE’s (D-Mass.) Vietnam War record.
The ads upended that presidential race, and the term “swift-boating” has since become political shorthand for an untruthful or unfair smear. Reed has continued to defend the ads, citing the veterans who spoke out in them.
“The media have termed ‘swift boating’ as illegitimate, unwarranted attacks,” he wrote in a 2008 op-ed in the Washington Times. “According to the swift boat veterans I know it is defined as ‘exposing a political figure as a fraud’.”
Reed and his cohorts have been roiling political campaigns since the 1980s. One of Reed’s former partners at the GOP media strategy group Stevens, Reed, Curcio & Potholm, the firm that produced the swift-boat attack ads, was the now-deceased Greg Stevens.
In 1988, Stevens produced the ad portraying former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in a tank, which became the defining image of the Democrat’s presidential bid, making him look weak and silly on national security. Dukakis was unable to recover.
Reed has produced ads for such notable Republicans as Mitt Romney, during his unsuccessful 1994 Senate bid against then-Sen. Ted Kennedy. He also worked on then-Rep. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Trump offers sympathy for those charged with Jan. 6 offenses Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees MORE’s (S.C.) 2002 bid to replace former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
After 9/11, Reed was behind ads that supported former President George W. Bush’s war on terror. Later, he went after President Obama for voting to “allow the early release for convicted sexual abusers.”
In 2007, Reed launched his current firm, FSPA, and the group instantly plunged into controversy.
Reed had worked as a strategist for Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE (Ariz.), and that November, the group ran ads in support of the senator, who was at the time seeking the Republican nomination for president.
McCain, who was a vocal critic of the swift-boat attacks on Kerry, has made a career out of battling soft money in politics. Irked by the entrance of the outside group into the race, he sought to shut it out.
''I ask all of my donors and supporters, including Mr. Reed, to cease and desist immediately from supporting any independent expenditures that might be construed as benefiting my campaign indirectly,” McCain wrote at the time.
But Reed refused. Instead, he countered with an op-ed in the Washington Times that scolded McCain for ignoring the new realities of money in politics, arguing Democrats were primed to capitalize on it at the expense of Republicans.
“The issue of independent expenditures is much bigger than Mr. McCain's own campaign finance reform agenda,” Reed wrote at the time. “To the extent that public opinion drives public policy in this country, and it frequently does, our success in the global war on terror could well be at stake.”
It wasn’t the only time Reed has warred with a former ally — Republican strategist Chris LaCivita, a former operative for the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, is now a senior adviser to Paul.
“It’s unfortunate that his standard for the truth has sunk so low,” LaCivita told The Hill in an email.
Reed’s group was quiet in 2012, but has suddenly materialized with a vengeance ahead of the 2016 election.
On Monday, a day before Paul was set to enter the presidential race, the FSPA leaked to media outlets its plan to launch a $1 million national ad campaign attacking the Kentucky Republican as “dangerous” on foreign policy.
The announcement was primed to explode: it featured a Republican on Republican attack, and played into the existing narrative that Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy would be a major hurdle for his campaign.
Paul launched his campaign from Kentucky on Tuesday, and then immediately set out for the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The ads have coincided with Paul’s stops in each.
They’ve also run to a huge conservative audience on Fox News Channel, one appearing directly after a Megyn Kelly interview of Paul.
The first ad claimed that in 2007, Paul said “it’s ridiculous” to think that Iran poses a threat to national security. That claim was partly to blame for Paul losing his cool with NBC’s “Today” show host Savannah Guthrie in an interview that went viral.
Paul has been forced to respond to the ads in nearly every media interview. FSPA says the 30-second ads ran 80 to 100 times per day in the early voting states, but they’ve rolled countless times for free online and on cable news.
Paul and his team have hit back, with the Kentucky senator telling CNN “the whole thing is a farce and factually incorrect.”
The White House hopeful has said his 2007 remarks are being ripped out of context. His argument is that he made the comments when he wasn’t in office or campaigning, and that Iran has become considerably more dangerous in the eight years since.
Additionally, Paul has said that while negotiating with Iran is preferable to war, he’s expressed skepticism that President Obama is capable of getting a good deal. He says he’s frustrated that there are different stories coming from Iranian and U.S. officials, and pointed out that he was one of 47 Senators who signed a controversial letter to Iran last month that says any deal could be null and void when Obama leaves the White House.
Rather than appeasing Reed, Paul’s response seems to have inflamed him further.
“Senator Paul said that our ads are lies, but there’s no disputing the facts of our ad,” Reed said in a statement attached to the release of a second ad that the FSPA says was produced in response to Paul’s rebuke. “Senator Paul also said that our ad 'shows you someone’s worried about me.' What we are worried about is the threat of a nuclear Iran, because we are certain that, contrary to Senator Paul, an Iran with even one nuclear weapon would be a disaster for this country and for our allies."
Paul has said he doesn’t know Reed, and without naming names, has said he believes key figures in the neo-conservative community are behind the ads.
“They just want war. The difference is I want negotiations from a position of strength. I'm a Reagan Republican,” Paul said in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity.
Lisa Boothe, of the FSPA, insists that the ads aren’t meant to railroad Paul’s presidential candidacy, but rather, that the group is merely seeking to pressure him to change his stance on the negotiations.
“Given the timing of the framework and this looming June deadline, now is the time to step up pressure surrounding the deal, and put pressure on someone like Paul, who should know better,” Boothe said.