George Allen’s chances in politics again? Consensus unclear.

November 7, 2012

George Allen stepped into the governor’s mansion in cowboy boots, with detractors calling him “Jethro.” He strode out four years later with those boots on a seemingly viable path to the White House.

Considered one of the most productive, if also divisive, governors in modern Virginia history, Allen went on to the U.S. Senate, where the freshman found himself touted as a potential Republican presidential nominee. But his 2006 reelection bid was undone by a series of gaffes. And his comeback attempt on Tuesday fell short when he lost a close race to fellow former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D).

The day after his loss, some said that Allen could still have a future in politics, but that was hardly the consensus.

“It’s hard to imagine Allen returning to electoral politics,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond political analyst and former Virginia Commonwealth University professor.

That was the prevailing view among Allen supporters Tuesday night at Richmond’s Omni Hotel, where the GOP’s planned victory party turned into political wake for a once-towering political figure.

And it was the view of critics such as former Democratic delegate Richard Cranwell, who was Allen’s chief nemesis as House majority leader. “My guess is George would have difficulty getting the Republican nomination to run for anything, having lost twice,” Cranwell said.

Allen, himself, wasn’t discussing his future. He declined requests for interviews and spent the day with his wife, Susan, and family, his campaign said.

An e-mail to supporters hinted that he might be done with public life. “As private citizens, Susan and I will continue to advocate the aspirations of families throughout Virginia,” Allen said in the message.

Allen was a rising GOP star after a contentious but productive governorship.

Assuming office in 1994 at age 41, he reformed welfare, abolished parole, imposed tough school-testing standards and lured big-name employers to the state.

He alienated many with a confrontational style, most memorably by exhorting Republicans to knock Democrats’ “soft teeth down their whiny throats.” But he still managed to get his ambitious agenda past a General Assembly almost entirely under Democratic control. (Republicans did win power-sharing in a newly tied state Senate midway through his term.)

“He’s probably the most successful reform governor of the modern era,” Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said Wednesday.

But Allen’s political trajectory nose-dived during his 2006 reelection bid, when he lobbed the racial slur “macaca” at a campaign aide for his opponent, then publicly denied his mother’s Jewish heritage.

Allen lost that race to former Navy secretary James Webb (D). Webb did not seek a second term, creating the open seat for which Allen battled Kaine.

Allen’s loss to Kaine was narrow enough that Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, isn’t counting him out.

“He can live to fight another day if he wants to,” Farnsworth said.

There are others who can imagine Allen throwing his hat into the ring for the right race. Perhaps for governor. (In Virginia, governors cannot serve consecutive terms, but they can hold the office again after a break.) Or the Senate. (Some think he’d be tempted to run for Sen. Mark R. Warner’s seat if the Democrat jumps into next year’s governor’s race and wins.)

“There are people who have suffered defeats worse than that — the first person who comes to mind is Richard Nixon,” said former Republican state senator John Chichester of Reedville.

Whether Virginia will have Allen to kick around, no one expects him to simply put his feet up. The same could be said of Susan Allen, who for the past 18 months has kept up a campaign schedule as rigorous as her husband’s. On election night, before results were known, a reporter asked her how she would occupy herself as the wife of a senator.

“I’ve never been one to sit around and let the grass grow under my feet,” she said. “I actually will have a book coming out in a few months, a children’s book, so I look forward to spending time promoting that.”

Allen’s campaign declined to provide details about the book, so Virginia will have to stay tuned for that as well.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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