Virginia's contest for U.S. Senate was supposed to be the marquee rematch of the 2012 election cycle: former Sen. George Allen vying to unseat the man who narrowly toppled him six years before, Sen. Jim Webb. Cowboy boots versus combat boots all over again.
But the rematch isn't happening because one of those 2006 combatants won't be on the ballot. Webb decided against running for reelection. There's no guarantee Allen will be in contention next November either. Tea Party activist Jamie Radtke and Bishop E.W. Jackson are two likely primary opponents. Prince William County Board of Supervisors chairman Corey Stewart, Congressman Rob Wittman, and Del. Bob Marshall are also taking a look at the race.
Allen nevertheless sounds confident and upbeat. Despite missteps in his own campaign -- particularly the "Macaca" moment reported ad nauseam by the Washington Post -- and a disastrous year for Republicans in general, Allen lost by just 7,200 votes. Since 2006, the state political climate for Republicans has improved dramatically. If his campaign improves half as much, Allen would have to be the prohibitive favorite. He'd be running without George W. Bush, Iraq, or an unconventional opponent like Webb.
This time around, the albatrosses would mostly hang around the Democrat's neck: high unemployment, massive budget deficits, burgeoning debt, and an unpopular health care reform law. After a stint with the Democratic National Committee, former Gov. Tim Kaine doesn't look as post-partisan as he did in 2005 (though national Democrats still consider him the strongest candidate). Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, shows Kaine and Allen in a dead heat.
So the big question for Virginia Republicans is whether Allen remains their best standard-bearer for Senate. "I don't like to lose," he told TAS. "But it is a humbling experience and you can learn from it." Allen continues, "I take responsibility for the mistakes in my  campaign."
It was only the second loss of Allen's political career. The son of the legendary Washington Redskins coach, Allen finished third out of four candidates in a 1979 bid for the Virginia House of Delegates -- his campaign manager reportedly made him wear wingtips instead of his trademark cowboy boots -- but went on to be elected delegate, congressman, and governor. In 2000, Allen was the only Republican challenger to beat a sitting Democratic senator.
Running to regain that seat, Allen rails against excessive federal spending. He calls for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, supermajorities for earmarks, and a line-item veto. If Congress fails to pass a budget, like the Democratic majority did last year, Allen would dock members' pay. Allen favors repealing President Obama's Affordable Care Act and points out that he -- along with then-Sen. John Warner -- recommended Henry Hudson, the Virginia jurist who ruled Obamacare unconstitutional, for his current federal judgeship.
Overall, Allen argues that the Tea Party is pushing Virginia and the country back to "common sense conservatism": energy independence and a limited federal government that focuses on its main constitutional responsibility, national defense. He believes he is a good fit for the commonwealth's recent rightward shift.
Asked if he thought Republicans did a good job controlling federal spending the last time they were in the majority, Allen isn't quite as enthusiastic as when he criticized the Democrats but still readily concedes they did not. "I was against overspending then too," he says. Allen emphasizes that he opposed the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) when it was conceived to bail out Wall Street -- he was no longer in the Senate when it passed -- and also against the Obama administration's decision to use TARP funds to bail out automobile manufacturers.
Still, Allen's Bush-era record is going to come under heavy scrutiny from his likely primary opponents. "The Tea Party movement would not exist today if the Republicans had not failed under the Bush years," Jamie Radtke said at the inaugural meeting of the Senate Tea Party caucus. Corey Stewart uncorked the following in a television interview: "Sen. Allen was a great governor of Virginia -- he really was. But his record in the United States Senate was mediocre." (Allen does prefer to be addressed as "Governor Allen.")
Among Virginia Republicans, the battle lines are already drawn: on the one side there are those who believe George Allen was a Tea Party conservative before it was cool. On the other are those who want him to join his rivals Jim Webb and Chuck Robb in retirement.
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