ROANOKE — The internal battle in the Virginia Republican Party between everyday conservatives and tea party insurgents took center stage in a U.S. Senate primary debate here Saturday, and the establishment’s man emerged unscathed.
George Allen, the former senator and governor favored by party leaders, had little trouble rebutting or simply ignoring attacks by three rivals trying to tag him as insufficiently zealous about shrinking government and other causes dear to the right.
Two of the candidates, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) and Bishop E.W. Jackson, never mentioned Allen by name. They seemed more bent on delivering their own individual messages than tearing down the front-runner.
Former Virginia tea party leader Jamie Radtke was more aggressive. She assailed Allen for having been too willing to raise spending and the debt as a U.S. senator from 2001 to 2007.
“Virginians are demanding no more blank checks for Congress . . . no more half measures,” Radtke said. “Let’s send a message to the political establishment.”
Allen was prepared. He argued that much of the increased spending when he was in the Senate resulted from higher security and defense costs in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In addition, he said, deficits are larger and more of a threat now than when he voted four times to raise the federal debt ceiling.
That won’t persuade the die-hards, but at least it shows he is sensitive to the concern.
If the debate was any measure, there’s nothing to stop Allen from cruising to victory in the June 12 GOP primary as predicted by polls and most political observers. Then he’ll face a real challenge, from former Democratic governor Tim Kaine, for the open Senate seat.
In one sense, Allen’s avoidance of trouble here was disappointing for the Kaine campaign. It would have loved to see Allen beaten up by the right over social issues, but those were barely mentioned. There were no questions about abortion, and only one about same-sex marriage, which Allen used to make an unrelated point about the need to hold down gasoline prices.
The gaffe-prone Allen — remember “macaca” — also didn’t make any significant verbal missteps.
Nevertheless, the very existence of this primary has put rightward political pressure on Allen. That will make it harder for him to move to the center this summer to fight with Kaine for independent votes that typically decide Virginia elections. (Kaine faces no primary challenge.)
The tea party’s tug is most evident in Allen’s position last summer in the critical debate over raising the debt ceiling. Under pressure then from Radtke, Allen said he would have voted “no” on the compromise package that saved the country from default.
Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a tea party favorite, endorsed that deal. Look for Kaine to argue that a vote for Allen would be a vote for continued gridlock in Washington.
The tea party’s influence on Allen was also underscored Saturday when he refused to formally endorse Mitt Romney for president. Everyone knows that Romney will be the Republican presidential nominee and that Allen and the other GOP Senate candidates will support him.
But for the GOP right, it’s important to make a show of waiting on an official endorsement to highlight disdain for Romney’s purported moderation. So Allen followed that course, while saying awkwardly that he looked forward to working with the former Massachusetts governor when he’s the nominee.
Allen seemed determined to be open and engaged with his rivals, presumably to avoid accusations that he was dismissive. He repeatedly turned toward them and smiled when they were speaking, and laughed along with everyone at Marshall’s one-liners. (Complaining that airport security personnel inappropriately groped passengers, Marshall said, “I actually thought TSA was an Obama jobs program for out-of-work urologists.”)
Allen can afford to seem magnanimous. He has such better name recognition than his challengers, and so much more money, that it’s safe for him to focus on Kaine. The strongest evidence of Allen’s confidence is that he isn’t even paying for television advertising to win the primary or even drive up his margin of victory.
If this primary is effectively over, however, the tea party can look ahead to a brighter prospect in next year’s heavyweight contest for the gubernatorial nomination. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the insurgents’ choice, is an early favorite over Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, representing the establishment.
The struggle for the party’s soul will continue.
To read previous columns by Robert McCartney, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.