In politics, things change quickly. George Allen began 2006 on top of the world. The son of the great Washington Redskins coach was considered a lock for reelection to his Senate seat from Virginia. One early poll showed him 31 points ahead of his strongest Democratic challenger, former Reagan Navy secretary and Born Fighting author Jim Webb.
Some thought Allen's Senate campaign would be a mere blip on the road to the White House. The senator -- who had also been a governor, congressman, and state legislator -- was being seriously discussed as a Republican presidential candidate. At the very least, Allen could have entered the 2008 primaries as a full-spectrum conservative candidate, the role that ended up being shared uneasily by Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson.
It wasn't to be. After eroding steadily for several months, Allen's lead evaporated completely once he called a young Webb volunteer -- who happened to be filming him -- "Macaca." Allen protested it was all in good fun and he didn't know he was using a racial slur, but he was nevertheless carried away in the Democratic landslide. In short order, Virginia ceased to look like much of a red state: in less than three years, the commonwealth had two Democratic senators, a Democratic governor, and had voted for its first Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.
Things have changed once again. Republicans retook the governorship in 2009 and made gains across the board in the following year's midterm elections. Virginia looks unlikely to go for Barack Obama a second time and has instead become ground zero for the constitutional challenge to his signature policy initiative, the national health care reform law. Jim Webb abruptly decided to retire rather than run for a second term. Surveying this more favorable scene, George Allen seeks to return to the Senate -- but his biggest obstacle may the kind of grassroots conservatives who were once supposed to make him president.
Ambitious Virginia Republicans haven't exactly shown Allen much deference. Congressman Rob Wittman, Prince William County Board of Supervisors chairman Corey Stewart, Del. Bob Marshall, and Bishop E. W. Jackson are all publicly weighing bids for the GOP nomination. Stewart, who once described Allen's Senate record as "mediocre," said there were two reasons for this. "[Allen] has trouble with some conservatives and Tea Partiers who think he isn't conservative enough," Stewart told TAS. "And some mainstay Republicans are concerned about his electability."
Put Tea Party activist Jamie Radtke, another Republican candidate in the mix for the Senate seat, squarely in the former category. "More than anything you really see people wanting a new generation of conservative leaders," she told TAS. "The country needs more Rand Pauls, Mike Lees, and Marco Rubios sent to Washington and not somebody who has been a politician for three decades." Radtke describes Allen's support among Republican primary voters as "broad but very shallow." "I think both the primary and the general election are a real toss-up," she says.
A survey by Public Policy Polling (PPP), a Democratic firm, bears out Radtke's second point: the group found Allen and former governor Tim Kaine, the Democrats' strongest possible candidate, tied at 47 percent apiece. But Allen retained a commanding lead among GOP primary voters, taking 67 percent to Marshall's 7 percent, Radtke's 4 percent, and Stewart's 3 percent. Hampton Roads lawyer David McCormick polled another 3 percent. "The threat of a Tea Party challenge to George Allen has been pretty overblown," Dean Debnam, PPP's president, said when his outfit's poll was released. "He's a lot more immune to that than most establishment Republican politicians are."
"I don't like to lose," Allen told TAS, emphasizing that he had learned from the mistakes of his 2006 campaign. If Debnam is right, the former senator doesn't have much to worry about. But some observers believe that while Allen starts out in a much stronger position than Republican incumbents Orrin Hatch or Richard Lugar, he could be in trouble if any of his opponents can raise sufficient funds and name recognition. "Neither party has a dominant character who if I were in Vegas I'd put money on," says Stewart. "George Allen is the best known of the potential candidates but he's clearly got some baggage. On the Democratic side, they're clearly in complete disarray."
Stewart is best known for spearheading Prince William County's crackdown on illegal immigration. He would run to Allen's right on a broad range of issues -- he would "reduce Medicaid spending substantially," raise the retirement age, reduce Social Security benefits for future retirees, and "eliminate all federal housing subsidies." But Stewart argues he would be stronger in November as well. "No Republican statewide candidate has been able to win without winning or coming close to winning Northern Virginia," he says. "I was on the ballot at the same time as George Allen in 2006. If he had done as well as I did, he would have won the general election."
Yet Stewart is running for another term as chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors this November. That would delay any decision on the Senate race until either later this year or early next year. Allen, by contrast, declared this January. Stewart maintains that he won't "be starting from ground zero" if he weighs in that late, but credibly challenging Allen could cost up to $10 million. A late start could put him at a fundraising disadvantage.
Moreover, running to Allen's right won't be easy. He's no Mike Castle or Charlie Crist. Instead he's the governor who reformed welfare and abolished parole, the senator who voted for tax cuts and promoted conservative judges (including, as he is quick to point out, Henry Hudson, the Virginia jurist who ruled against Obamacare). Allen's campaign pitch is filled with references to balanced budgets and the line-item veto, and he is particularly sharp on energy policy. George Allen's sins against conservatism were ones widely committed by George W. Bush-era Republicans.
That's what makes Radtke's campaign interesting. She's not afraid to hit Allen on Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, earmarks, or expanding the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. "He added more than $3 trillion to the national debt," Radtke says, laughing as she claims Republicans are now trying to cut as much spending this year as Allen's 40,000 earmarks cost during his Senate tenure. The Tea Party's opposition to Obama has been explicit, but the movement has also been an implicit rejection of Bush. Earlier this year, Radtke said bluntly, "The Tea Party movement would not exist today if the Republicans had not failed under the Bush years."
Post-Tea Party, grassroots conservatives have been demanding more from their candidates than polish, experience, electability, or even good American Conservative Union ratings. They want candidates who will lead the charge in rolling back the gains of liberalism and limiting the federal government. It's a sentiment shared throughout the country. "If I get to the Senate and just vote 100 percent correctly," says Ted Cruz, a conservative running for the GOP senatorial nomination in Texas, "I will consider myself a failure."
So could the 2006 winner of the Conservative Political Action Conference presidential straw poll now be considered too moderate to nominate for the U.S. Senate? It's difficult to see that happening, and Allen is working hard to make sure it doesn't. But in today's volatile political climate, change is more than an Obama campaign slogan.