Correction: An earlier version of this column described George Allen, a former Virginia governor and former U.S. senator, as a lobbyist. Allen, who is again running for the Senate, is a political consultant, not a registered lobbyist. This version has been corrected.
Speaking at Richmond’s posh Jefferson Hotel on April 25, George Allen seemed at the top of his game. Trying to regain his U.S. Senate seat, he gave a speech to the nonprofit World Affairs Council that was dignified and lofty. His trademark folksiness also came through in carefully measured doses, right down to the cowboy boots and the occasional flashes of his boyish grin.
Quoting Ronald Reagan and paraphrasing the Gospel of Matthew, he spoke of America “as a shining city upon a hill whose beacon guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” He talked briefly of his own immigrant background and the need for balancing tough enforcement of immigration laws with welcoming talented foreigners. He talked of promise, hope and a greater America to come.
A more mature, self-disciplined Allen is emerging this year. He is watching himself carefully, seeking to avoid the horrendous errors that cost him his 2006 Senate race to Democrat James Webb. During that race, it was revealed that Allen wore a Confederate flag on his lapel at his high school graduation in California, a tidbit he handled badly. He seemed uncomfortable acknowledging that his mother, Henrietta, came from a Jewish family in Tunisia. Then came his “macaca” moment: the thoughtless slurring of a young American-born man of Indian descent at a campaign event that was captured on videotape and went viral on the Internet.
His stumblings were especially strange given that Allen should have known better. The son of the Hall of Fame coach of the Washington Redskins, a popular former governor and an incumbent U.S. senator, he was hardly new to the public eye. His easygoing, “aw-shucks” manner, football pedigree and solid loyalty to Virginia’s business elite made him seem destined to be a dynastic figure. He was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2008. All he needed to do was get past Webb.
After his implosion, Allen kept a low profile, and perhaps this time out of the spotlight gave him space and time for soul-searching. He served as an energy industry political consultant and published a book that linked understanding sports with Washington politics. “He’s certainly learned his lessons from that one horrific campaign,” says political observer Bob Holsworth, who regards him as an otherwise good campaigner.
The new Allen has prevailed on the first rung of his campaign. In the June 12 Republican primary, he easily fought off three opponents, including a serious one, all of whom accused him of being a toady for the Washington elite. Drawing 65 percent of the vote, he bested Jamie Radtke, the firebrand former tea party leader and former babysitter for Allen’s children, who won a respectable 23 percent of the vote. Trailing were social conservative Robert G. Marshall, a delegate from Prince William County, and E.W. Jackson, a political gadfly from Chesapeake.
During her well-run campaign, Radtke took shot after shot at Allen, proclaiming him to be just another budget-buster who voted relentlessly for spending for entitlements and special interests that has led to unsupportable deficits. “Both political parties have created this mess that we have to get out of,” Radtke told me at a Election Day stop at a nearly empty polling place in a Chesterfield church.
But Radtke’s criticism didn’t stick. Allen let her accusations roll off his back and quietly watched as Radtke was cut out of debates. His overriding goal clearly was to avoid giving the campaign of his Democratic opponent, former governor Timothy Kaine, a target as the real contest heats up.
Holsworth argues that Allen is adapting his style to the new voter demographics in Virginia. Cowboy boots and snuff go down well with the white good ol’ boys who tipple bourbon from Dixie cups at the famous Shad Planking political event in Wakefield every April. That crowd, however, is fading into the Southern mist as new Virginia voters appear.
Important new constituencies include ethnic voters in Northern Virginia and independent women not interested in NASCAR. People of Asian descent make up 16 percent of the population of Fairfax County, and a hard-line stance on immigration law would alienate many of the voters among them. Likewise, harping on the image of the spoiled, cosseted federal worker may work well in rural areas or retiree strongholds such as the Northern Neck, but it’s a losing strategy in Northern Virginia — the most important area for any statewide candidate.
The race will be very tight. Much may depend on whether President Obama can turn out his voters here as well as he did in 2008. The commonwealth has changed notably since Allen’s defeat. Many recent arrivals weren’t around to witness his self-destruction in 2006. Much also may depend on how well Allen’s recrafted image appeals to new voters and persuades those whom he alienated to change their minds about him.
The writer blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. He is a participant in The Post’s Local Blog Network.