Meet the new George Allen, same as the old one. But nicer.
Fresh off his victory in the Republican primary to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), Allen is focused on winning over a much broader swath of voters in his contest against fellow former Virginia governor Timothy M. Kaine (D).
Primary winners often retool their message for a general election — recall Mitt Romney’s spokesman saying his boss could change his message “almost like an Etch A Sketch.” But Allen’s camp sees little need to change the substance of his proposals because his primary was never really competitive and he spent relatively little time in fights on the right that might have alienated the middle.
Yet Democrats think Allen carved out enough positions during the primary — or conspicuously dodged them— to provide them with ample ammunition for November.
And the Republican’s campaign revealed its opening gambit of the general election last week, unveiling two TV ads designed to make Allen more personally appealing.
The spots feature two women who have long known Allen: Dorothy Jaeckle, vice chairman of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, and Betsy Beamer, the secretary of the commonwealth when Allen was governor. The women praise him as “good-natured” and “a good man, a good husband, a good father, a good listener.” One ad shows Allen playing in a park with a group of children.
The commercials are part of a broader effort to showcase his support, in personal terms, from “Virginia Voices,” rather than high-profile but impersonal endorsers. And they suggest the campaign sees the need to make Allen more likable, particularly to women.
“I think both sides are aware that the crucial swing voters are going to be women, younger women particularly,” said Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “Clearly, they’re trying to get this softer message out there. And it’s an acknowledgment that he could have a problem with women voters.”
After being heavily favored to win in 2006, Allen lost his Senate reelection race to Webb after he referred to an Indian American volunteer for the Webb campaign as “macaca,” an ethnic slur in some cultures. Allen has apologized, but critics say the moment was revealing.
Kaine made that case during their one-on-one debate in December, accusing Allen of “name-calling and division and bullying.”
Webb beat Allen by fewer than 10,000 votes overall, but exit polls showed that the Democrat won female voters by 10 points and self-described independents by 12 points.
A Washington Post poll released last month showed Kaine leading Allen among women by 7 points, while the two were nearly tied among independents. The survey also found that Allen was viewed favorably by 47 percent of registered voters and unfavorably by 31 percent. (Kaine’s score was 41 and 41.)
During a tour of Tart Lumber in Sterling last week, Allen made small talk with the hardware store’s employees, chatting with the paint salesman about touching up his concrete outdoor steps (Allen purchased a can of gray paint) and telling a worker in the wood shop about the time he built a cedar closet for his log cabin.
More substantively, Allen spoke to the store manager about providing health coverage for employees. “I think health savings accounts are part of the solution,” Allen said. “My own family are on them.”
Allen also said, as he regularly does, that he “would love to be the deciding vote to repeal Obamacare.” And he called for fewer regulations and increased energy exploration.
The message was nearly identical to one he delivered nine days earlier at a pre-primary rally with supporters at another small business in Ashburn. Del. David Ramadan (R-Loudoun), an Allen supporter who attended both events, said he didn’t expect Allen’s emphasis to change much during the general election campaign.
“We’ll keep that focus of less government and less taxes and we’ll continue to do so, whether we’re talking to the base, or we’re talking to independents or we’re approaching even Democrats,” Ramadan said.
The hope for Allen’s camp is that his emphasis on jobs and the economy will serve as an all-purpose message, one that motivates conservatives and attracts centrists.
Allen spokeswoman Emily Davis said that the campaign would keep emphasizing “the issues Virginians are talking about around their kitchen table, including jobs, energy prices, health care and education,” and that “Democrats know they can’t win on their job-destroying economic record.”
Kaine’s team will continue to criticize Allen for his record in the Senate, just as his Republican primary foes did. And Democrats plan to tie Allen to divisive social issues.
“George Allen’s career-long record of pitting Virginians against one another, coupled with his role as a U.S. senator in helping to create our economic mess, is the opposite of what voters want and exactly why George Allen’s reelection effort is struggling to build enthusiasm,” said Kaine spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine.
For two consecutive years, Allen steadfastly avoided saying how he would have voted on the budget proposals of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). If Allen had endorsed Ryan’s blueprint, which includes significant changes to Medicare, he would have risked alienating moderates and seniors. But if he had criticized Ryan, that could have angered conservatives who revere the House budget chairman.
Yet Allen praised Ryan’s budget enough — calling it a “constructive plan” in 2011 and a “worthwhile” approach this year — that the Kaine campaign has already sought to link Allen to the proposals.
Allen did not take a position on the controversial bill in the General Assembly to require women to undergo a vaginal ultrasound before getting an abortion, nor did he say how he would vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act considered by the Senate last month. Allen did endorse the idea of federal legislation declaring that life begins at conception, and he backed a Senate measure that would have allowed insurance companies and employers to opt out of covering contraceptives.
Add that up, Democrats say, and Allen becomes increasingly unattractive to Virginia women and independents. Republicans counter that Allen generally didn’t seek out debates on social issues during the primary and that general election voters are much more worried about jobs.
Determining which argument will win the day may depend on the many residents, particularly in Northern Virginia, who were not around to form an impression of Allen the last time he was on the ballot.
“I think in Virginia you have had a lot of new voters who have moved into the state; they may not know him in that context,” Taylor said. “The whole campaign has been about reintroducing him.”