Allen best be wary of the grass roots

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 9:30 PM

Former senator George Allen wants his old seat back. That many grass-roots Virginia conservatives are unhappy with Allen's reemergence five years after his narrow loss to Democrat James Webb is, at this point, well established.

"There's a lot of people who are ready for George Allen to retire," said Jeff Frederick, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.

What is less well established is whether the grass roots can do anything about it.

Top Republican leaders are expressing complete confidence that Allen will secure the nomination, then dispatch whoever Democrats manage to muster - whether former governor Tim Kaine, former congressman Tom Perriello or someone else.

But the ongoing battles between the old guard of the Virginia GOP and conservative upstarts threaten to complicate the party's seemingly clear path to picking up Webb's seat. And in a national political scene that is only months removed from the toppling of several moderate Republicans by challengers who hammered them for insufficient orthodoxy, conservative activists see opportunity.

"I believe they are more motivated right now for a Senate race than they have been for quite some time in Virginia," said Steve Waters, a consultant active in tea party politics.

Make no mistake: Allen's advantages over any grass-roots challenger will be significant. He has name recognition built up through 24 years in elected office, 10 of them statewide. He has a direct line into the wallets of prolific political donors in the commonwealth and beyond; as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he established ties with a national bankroll. He will not be hurting for resources.

And Allen won himself a big advantage last November, when a select group of Virginia Republicans decided that the party will choose its Senate candidate in a primary election, not in a convention of party activists.

Allen, who beat Sen. Charles Robb in 2000 by positioning himself as the anti-Washington, anti-establishment choice, now is defending his six years of insiderdom against a newly energized conservative grass roots, united under the tea party banner.

"He was complicit in everything Republicans did wrong," said Frederick, who has taken to calling Allen "the poster child for the establishment."

Virginia GOP conventions have been hazardous to the establishment's health - witness former governor Jim Gilmore, perhaps the most strident conservative elected statewide in a generation, and his fight against Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William) to win the 2008 Senate nomination. Opening the selection to the broader primary electorate allows Allen to flex his advantage in fundraising and name recognition.

But tea party activists hope that a low-turnout primary - held separately from what will be a high-interest presidential primary - will attract much the same core of committed, conservative loyalists that would have made up a convention electorate, while keeping less-committed, less-ideological voters home.

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