George Allen never appeared destined for a long Senate career.
The former Virginia governor expressed impatience with the chamber from the moment he arrived in 2001. It “moves at the pace of a wounded sea slug,” he once complained — and soon he began eyeing a larger prize: the White House.
Yet after seeing his career derailed by a stunning reelection loss in 2006, Allen is determined to regain that seat, running hard against Timothy M. Kaine (D) in perhaps the closest and most closely watched Senate contest in the country. Allen’s previous Senate term has become a flash point in the race and offers a host of clues about what he would do if he succeeds.
Lawmakers and aides who worked with Allen said that while he was able to advance a handful of key legislative issues, he was not in the chamber long enough to build a lengthy list of achievements. He occasionally worked across the aisle but typically voted the Republican leadership’s line and steered his party’s aggressive effort to gain seats in 2004.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, who served with Allen on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Allen was “ahead of the curve” on energy and high-tech policy.
“He brought the perspective of a governor to all these issues, meaning that while he argued for his principles, he also worked to get a result,” said Alexander (R-Tenn.).
Democrats saw Allen differently — as a partisan with a thin legislative record.
“He did a good job of picking and choosing spots to work on that were important to his constituencies, including the high-tech issues,” recalled Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). “But for any Democrat looking to work with a Republican, he’d be one of the last people that anyone would think of.”
New senators are typically advised to pick one or two issues and focus on them. In Allen’s case, that meant he spent the bulk of his time working on high-tech policy — a top priority for a booming industry in Northern Virginia.
“He dug deep into his committee assignments, actually worked hard on those and cultured some expertise,” recalled Eric Ueland, who was a top aide to former majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Critics, including some Republicans, disagree, contending that Allen compiled an undistinguished legislative record, even for a one-term senator.
Allen touts accomplishments on several fronts, from technology and energy policy to helping veterans and reforming the budget process.
In 2001, he sponsored an amendment that gave tax breaks to families buying computers. He worked to extend the moratorium on Internet taxes, restrict spam and fund nanotechnology research. Allen also pushed a bill to boost technology funding for historically black colleges and universities.
For veterans, Allen worked to raise the death benefit for the families of fallen troops to $100,000, and like most lawmakers, he voted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without providing ways to pay for them.
Allen consistently received high marks from right-leaning groups such as the American Conservative Union and the National Right to Life Committee, and he voted in support of President George W. Bush’s positions more than 95 percent of the time, according to statistics from Congressional Quarterly.
He voted for Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax-cut packages, and for a 2003 measure that added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. None of those measures was offset by spending cuts or tax increases.
In 2006, as his presidential hopes grew, Allen offered “a three-point plan” to encourage fiscal discipline: a balanced-budget amendment, line-item veto authority for the president and a “paycheck penalty” that would block lawmakers’ pay if they didn’t pass spending bills on time. None became law.
Despite his proposals, Democrats note, Allen voted repeatedly to raise the debt ceiling and against blocking lawmakers’ annual pay raise.
As Allen’s opponents did during this year’s Republican primary contest, Kaine’s campaign has portrayed Allen as a hypocrite on budget issues.
“You talk like a fiscal conservative,” Kaine said to Allen at a debate in July, “but you never governed like one.”
Allen never considered himself a centrist, although he made some efforts to reach across party lines.
“I would say he was selective in his choices, but by no means did he look at that aisle as a Berlin Wall that you couldn’t cross,” former senator John W. Warner (R-Va.) recalled recently. And Ueland praised Allen for integrating into the Senate “without a lot of muss or fuss.”
Allen worked with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Internet taxation and nanotechnology, and with Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to spur wireless broadband development. (Allen cites his work with Wyden as evidence of his ability to collaborate across the aisle, although Wyden has endorsed Kaine.)
Allen drew news media attention for breaking with Warner on some issues: Allen opposed proposed tax increases by then-Gov. Mark Warner (D), while John Warner backed them.
Allen also criticized efforts by the bipartisan “Gang of 14” — which included John Warner — to avoid a Senate meltdown over judicial nominations.
Allen dove into campaign politics not long after he was elected to the Senate, and by the 2004 cycle, he was heading the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Although insiders questioned some of the committee’s strategic decisions, Republicans gained four Senate seats on Allen’s watch, including a marquee victory by John Thune over then-Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle in South Dakota.
The NRSC gave Allen a national platform and helped him cultivate a fundraising network — useful tools for a White House candidate. He later took multiple trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, at one point joking, “If I had my druthers, I would have been born in Iowa.”
“He really did have a credible path to the presidency, and he knew it,” said John Ullyot, a longtime aide to John Warner. “What that did is shape the positions that he took in Virginia.”
As his term progressed, Allen appeared to shift on some key issues. In 2004, he opposed an assault-weapons ban, although he had backed one during his 2000 campaign. And in 2005, he voted in favor of a mandate to increase the use of ethanol in fuels — a top issue in Iowa — after having opposed the idea.
A November 2005 profile in the conservative National Review magazine said Allen “has perhaps a better chance of winning the nomination than any other Republican. He combines the people skills of a Bill Clinton, with the convictions of a Ronald Reagan, with the non-threatening persona of a George W. Bush circa 2000, prior to his becoming a hate-figure for the Left.”
In the same story, Allen made clear that he was impatient in the Senate. “As governor,” he said, “I made more decisions in the morning than I make in the Senate in a week. . . . Decisions are action and I like action. I hate just treading water and standing still.”
Despite that frustration, Allen is eager to get back to the Senate, and John Warner said he isn’t surprised. For all the theorizing that Allen is motivated by a desire to erase the memory of his 2006 Senate loss, Warner has a simpler explanation: “He really likes public service and all that goes with it.”