By his own account, George Allen didn’t have much fun in his first and only term in the U.S. Senate, which, he once complained, moves “at the pace of a wounded sea slug.” Even less fun, however, was the dramatic flameout that took place during his 2006 campaign for reelection. First, New Republic reporter Ryan Lizza discovered a high school yearbook photo featuring a teenage Allen with a Confederate flag pin attached to his collar. Then, a few months later, Allen was caught on tape calling a South Asian Democratic campaign worker “macaca.” Suddenly, Allen had a race problem. On Election Day, his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, pulled off a dramatic come-from-behind victory. The defeated Allen skulked off to the speaking circuit and dallied in consulting and book-writing.
Five years later, Allen is back and looking to reclaim his seat. But now he has to contend with the Tea Party, which is strong in the red parts of this purple state. While Allen has made the requisite overtures—attending Tea Party conferences, pulling out a pocket Constitution during his speeches—his stints in the governor’s mansion and in the Senate don’t make him terribly believable as a crusading outsider. Improbable as it may seem, this red-state everyman—a tobacco-chewing, cowboy-boot-wearing, down-home conservative—faces stirrings of discontent to his right.
During a swing through southwest Virginia at the end of May, Allen’s fists were balled-up—like a child struggling to contain his enthusiasm—his boots were shined, and his Liberty Bell-speckled tie was knotted tight. While BlackBerry toting aides hovered, the 59-year-old pol tried to recapture the insurgent energy of his first run for statewide office back in 1993. “What’s going on in Washington is just constantly a negative,” Allen told the crowd. Pessimism had infected the capital, he said. “This is America!” Allen exclaimed, raising his voice. “We’re only to be limited by our own imaginations!” Red-faced from squinting into the sun, Allen wrapped up his ten-minute spiel with a brisk locker-room exhortation—“That’s the mission, team!”—before stepping aside to sign hats and copies of his book, What Washington Can Learn From the World of Sports. The crowd nodded and smiled, but no one jumped to their feet.
Meanwhile, a host of conservative challengers and potential challengers are said to be sizing up Allen: There is the Prince William County official who wants to import a version of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigration law to Virginia, the state delegate who recently threw a fit over the Richmond Federal Reserve’s decision to fly a gay-pride flag outside its headquarters, and the part-time professor at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. Then there is Jamie Radtke, who may be in the best position of anyone to give Allen a headache. Radtke worked for Allen as an office manager back in the ’90s, but today she is a 37-year-old mother of three (all of whom she homeschools) and co-founder of a statewide Tea Party federation. While Radtke—like all the other Republicans who are either running against Allen or contemplating a run—polls poorly (in the low single digits in a recent Washington Post poll), and though she only raised about $50,000 last quarter, she quickly garnered the support of the state’s Tea Party leaders, was enthusiastically endorsed by right-wing Internet guru Erick Erickson of RedState.com, and has been praised by The Daily Caller as one of the “best-known” and “most effective” Tea Party leaders in the United States.
Allen has given Radtke and other right-wing ankle-biters plenty of material with which to work. His record in the Senate contains some positions that now appear poisonously moderate. He voted for the No Child Left Behind Act, which imposed federal standards on schools. (He has since recanted this stance.) Conservative purists also fault him for supporting President George W. Bush’s massive prescription-drug benefit plan as well as a pork-laden transportation bill in 2005. And Allen voted to raise the debt ceiling four times—votes that would have been considered rather mundane until this year, when the debt ceiling became a major issue for conservative activists. (On that issue, too, Allen has revised his former stance.) Moreover, for all his Dixie self-styling, Allen isn’t really a fire-breathing social conservative. At a Panera Bread in Blacksburg, I watched him answer a question about immigration by saying that he’d encourage educated foreigners to stay in the country legally—he’d even “attach a green card to their diploma” when they earned science and engineering credentials. In his book, he discusses abortion but won’t take a definitive stand on whether it should be legal. On the stump, he dodges questions about gay marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
But Allen’s biggest drawback in the eyes of some conservatives may simply be that he is an insider. “When somebody has already been in office, and they suddenly start coming up with these ideas during the election cycle, the question is: ‘Why haven’t you done that?’” says John Taylor, president of the conservative Virginia Institute for Public Policy. “Everything that went wrong with the Republicans—George Allen embodies that,” explains former Virginia GOP chair Jeff Frederick, referring to Allen’s allegedly liberal spending habits. “It’s time for a new face,” Mark Kevin Lloyd, leader of the Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation, told me.
Of course, Allen is still likely to be a lock for the nomination. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable that there is currently such skepticism toward him among some right-wingers. Just how much has changed in recent years was clear when I attended an Allen event in Bedford County, located in the southern part of the state. The event was hosted by the local Republican establishment, which now finds itself under siege from a faction of political neophytes. “The Tea Party took it over,” sighed Sandy Cranston, a three-term chair of the Bedford Republicans, referring to the county’s party leadership. “We’re not conservative enough for them. Jesus Christ wouldn’t be.”
Lydia DePillis is a reporter for the Washington City Paper. This article originally ran in the June 30, 2011, issue of the magazine.