Sen. George Allen was unanimously elected chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee yesterday by GOP senators searching for a fresh face to defend their new majority and to reach out to donors in a stingier, post-campaign-finance-reform world.
Allen's promotion to the Senate GOP's fundraiser in chief, just two years into his first term, reflected the rapid rise in the party of the former Virginia governor and one-term House member from Charlottesville.
Although Allen, 50, made his name as a fierce partisan early in his career, he has impressed Senate colleagues by his willingness to stake out strong ideological stands, particularly on tax and foreign policy issues, with a non-threatening, sunny manner that has played well on the national GOP fundraising circuit.
He has cultivated a donor base in Virginia, in the technology industry and around friends of his famous namesake father, the longtime National Football League coach who was inducted this year into the NFL Hall of Fame.
The new post gives Allen access to the Republican Party's national contributors and positions him to dispense help and to forge alliances among senators well before his own 2006 reelection campaign.
The incoming Senate majority leader, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), introducing Allen yesterday as one of seven Senate GOP leaders elected without opposition, said: "We think we have found the right person for the job. He is young and developing. . . . He's willing to take positions. He's willing to lead."
"It has played in Peoria, the Allen personable approach," said Robbie Aiken, vice president of federal affairs for the Arizona energy firm Pinnacle West Capital Corp., who supported Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2000 presidential campaign and raised $60,000 for Allen.
"That's what makes the difference -- he comes off so sincere," said Aiken, who called Allen "disarmingly smart" and added, "He doesn't mind playing a little bit aw-shucks and being folksy, but he's dead serious on the issues."
Allen was Senate co-chairman and then chairman of the President's Dinner, the GOP's main House-Senate fundraising event with the White House, last year and this year. Allen was credited with raising $3 million.
Allen took over the political action committee of the late senator Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), the Good Government for America PAC, raising and donating about $250,000 to Senate Republicans. Allen was named head of the Senate GOP's technology task force and fought sales taxes on Internet transactions.
As chairman, Allen, who now lives in Alexandria, will direct GOP candidate recruitment and fundraising for 2004.
The job just became more challenging. Starting last week, the national political parties were legally barred from raising and spending soft money contributions -- large donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, which helped boost the NRSC total to $109 million as of October for the 2002 election.
The McCain-Feingold legislation limits contributions to $2,000 per individual per election, so a lot more donors will have to be contacted. Allen's task will be a daunting one: Come close to the 2002 total while competing for funds with President Bush's reelection effort.
Allen also will have to redefine the role of the party committee, which has lavished most of its money on TV ads.
For example, the NRSC spent $1.8 million on ads in Georgia 10 days before Election Day to defeat Sen. Max Cleland (D) and nearly outspent Missouri Sen.-elect Jim Talent (R) with $7 million of help on television.
Republicans are forming a new soft money issue advocacy entity that under tax law will not have to disclose who gives money or how the money is spent.
"We need to be more creative, more energetic and redouble or triple our efforts," said Allen, who said Republicans are consulting with fundraising lawyers and with chairmen who ran the NRSC before soft money use exploded, naming Ted Stevens (Alaska), Don Nickles (Okla.) and departing Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.).
Allen has built a following among the Republican leadership's influential K Street backers.
Lisa Nelson, former aide to Newt Gingrich and lobbyist for AOL Time Warner, which gave $14,000 to Allen, said: "It's been clear that Senator Allen can motivate and grow the party. We're thrilled to have him move into a leadership position that will help him broaden the party and elect his type of senator."
Major local donors to Allen include Walter M. Curt, president of Shenandoah Electronic Intelligence of Harrisonburg, and Thomas L. Blair, owner of Federal Medical Inc., a Bethesda health care company. Curt gave $100,000 and Blair gave $50,000 to Allen's state political committees before they became inactive after last week's elections.