As George Allen mulls Senate run, conservatives grumble about his record

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 8:03 PM

For months, it appeared that former U.S. senator George Allen would have a clear path to the Republican nomination if he chose to try to reclaim his old job.

But in the summer, grumbling about his past began, culminating in a Web site outlining the reasons some fellow Republicans oppose him: He's too moderate. He's part of the establishment. He's partly to blame for the record spending and ballooning deficit in Washington.

By this month, no fewer than four Republicans billing themselves as more conservative than Allen were considering challenging him for the right to run against Sen. James Webb, if the Virginia Democrat seeks reelection.

"There are some concerns based on his record and his rhetoric," said Mark Kevin Lloyd, chairman of the Lynchburg Tea Party and vice chairman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation, a statewide umbrella group. "People are looking at things in a new light," he said.

Some conservative and tea party activists say Allen abandoned right-of-center values, backing big-government programs and too much spending. But others say he merely failed to change along with Virginia and the Republican Party, both of which have become more conservative in part because of the emergence of the tea party movement.

"George is going to have to prove himself to our new friends in the party, and that's the way it should be," Gary C. Byler, the Republican chairman of the 2nd Congressional District and a veteran of Allen's first successful campaign for state House of Delegates, in 1981. Byler said he plans to support Allen if he runs, adding: "He knows he has a fight on his hands."

In an interview with The Washington Post, Allen said his conservatism has not changed since Ronald Reagan first inspired him to get into politics in 1976. Three decades ago, the man who would eventually hold Thomas Jefferson's seat in the Virginia General Assembly was known as a "rebel" and an "insurgent."

"Some of the things they are saying - it is laughable when you look at my record," said Allen, 58, a former congressman and governor.

Governor vs. senator

Allen, the presumptive front-runner for the GOP nomination, is considered one of Virginia's most transformational governors in a generation. He eliminated 10,000 state government jobs, sold the state yacht to save millions of dollars, abolished the parole system and increased sentences for violent criminals, and imposed a two-year limit for public assistance to overhaul what some considered a runaway government program.

But during his one term in the U.S. Senate, some Republicans complain, he backed President George W. Bush's proposals to increase spending; supported No Child Left Behind, a costly program to create a national education report card; favored a federal program to subsidize the costs of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries; and voted to expand the Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include crimes based on sexual orientation.

Allen's term in the Senate ended in 2007. His failed 2006 reelection bid was dominated by a controversy that erupted when he used the word "macaca" - a term thought to mean a monkey and viewed by many as a racial slur - in reference to a young Indian American volunteer for Webb.

Shifting landscape

"I voted for him every time, but this time, no way," said Jo-Ann Chase, a conservative Republican from Loudoun County who is a member of the state party's governing board and is active with the Northern Virginia Tea Party. "He's moderate. Maybe at the time he was the most conservative we had."

Michael Giere, a Republican activist from Falls Church who has supported Allen, said he has not decided whom to vote for in the Senate contest. But it won't be Allen, he said.

"I think the political landscape has moved in the country and in Virginia," Giere said. "I think the Republican Party has become more conservative and the American people are more conservative. The politics are more further right of center."

Allen has long described himself as a "common-sense Jeffersonian conservative" and says that he's proud of his record, citing a core belief in small government and fiscal responsibility.

"I've been against nannyism of government - always have been,'' he said.

Allen was one of 13 senators who took on Ted Stevens, the then-powerful Republican senator from Alaska, and voted against the infamous "bridge to nowhere," which became a symbol of the broken earmark system in Washington. He has talked for years about states' rights and the 10th Amendment, and he unsuccessfully introduced a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, as well as a bill that would have withheld salaries from members of Congress until a budget passed.

"Look at his votes - he was trying to do the best he could under the circumstances," said James Rich, a longtime Republican activist in Fauquier County who supports Allen.

Rich said Allen would be the strongest candidate for the Senate, notwithstanding the criticisms. "There's always a narrow group you can't please," he said.

Feels like a campaign

Allen has been campaigning like he's running for the Senate, though he has not formally made an announcement.

He has attended more than 100 gatherings - fundraisers, campaign events and speeches - since the summer and has raised $500,000 for candidates this year through his Good Government for America political action committee.

He participated in multiple events for Virginia's successful congressional candidates, H. Morgan Griffith in the southwest, Robert Hurt in Southside and central Virginia and Scott Rigell in Hampton Roads. And he helped out-of-state candidates, including Carly Fiorina of California, Marco Rubio of Florida and Nikki Haley of South Carolina.

Allen has reached out to tea party activists, speaking to large groups in Delaware and Virginia and to smaller groups at rallies in Woodbridge, Harrisonburg and Staunton on tax day.

"He was a tea party person before the tea party existed," said J. Tucker Watkins, a Republican activist from southern Virginia who worked for Allen in the Senate.

Allen has advantages that his potential opponents can't muster: extraordinary name recognition, thousands of former appointees who feel loyal to him and a robust list of potential donors from his days as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

He has his Web sites and a Draft George Allen Facebook page created in October in response to the Republicans Against George Allen page.

'Time for new blood'

Despite his front-runner status, though, others see an opening for a more conservative candidate.

At least four other potential candidates are traveling the state and speaking to Republican, tea party and business activists to gauge support: Jamie Radtke, chairwoman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation; Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County board of supervisors; Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William); and Bert Mizusawa, a businessman and lawyer who ran against Rigell.

"It's definitely time for new blood," said Richmond activist Willie Deutsch, who has not declared whom he would support. "Allen was a conservative leader in the 1990s, but it's time for somebody new. He ran the textbook case of the worst campaign in 2006. Why are we investing all our hopes in that?''

Radtke said that she had considered running for the state Senate next year but that she began thinking about the U.S. Senate instead after Virginia's first tea party convention, which drew an estimated 2,800 people to Richmond in October.

Radtke, who worked for Allen for a year when he was governor and she was right out of college, said it's time for a new candidate. She said that Allen was part of "George Bush's expansion of government" when he was senator and that she was concerned about some of his stances on abortion.

Allen has said that abortions should be legal in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is endangered, and he owned stock in the manufacturer of the morning-after pill.

Stewart made headlines recently when he said in a TV interview that Allen was a great governor but a mediocre senator who will find that his "base has moved on."

"George went along with the federal budget and went to Washington and stood by and let it happen," Stewart said in an interview. "He had his chance to put forth a conservative agenda to rein in federal spending."

Marshall, who is popular among those who favor home schooling and oppose abortion rights, almost beat former governor James S. Gilmore III for the Senate nomination in 2008. "People don't want Richmond to end up like Washington," Marshall said.

The Republican Party's governing board recently decided to hold a primary to nominate its Senate candidate in 2012, rather than its usual convention. A primary is thought to favor Allen, who has better name recognition and is expected to have an easier time raising money.

Allen said he will continue to mull his options over the holidays and make an announcement in the "short term'' even if it is before he knows whether Webb is running for reelection. Allen recently met with Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and has chatted with campaign consultants and other elected officials.

"A lot of people are encouraging me to run," Allen said. "People want common-sense conservative leadership."

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