WOODBRIDGE, Va.—George Allen just doesn’t spit like he used to.
The Republican Senate candidate still travels the campaign trail in black cowboy boots. He still sports the occasional outsized belt buckle. But for a man who used to proudly tout his ability to refuel on chaw without ever touching the tobacco, there is nary a spit cup to be seen.
It’s not that the former and would-be future GOP senator from Virginia doesn’t still chew tobacco. Those who know him say that he does. But he has excised the ritual from his political persona. If Allen has made a conscious decision about this, he doesn’t let on. “You know what Mark Twain once said?” he says, his boots clomping across a parking lot after an hour of shaking voters’ hands in a suburban appliance store. “Nothing needs more reforming than somebody else’s habit.”
Six years ago, much of Allen’s tattered image was in need of reforming, his tobacco dipping the least of his problems. He had just lost a bitter reelection campaign that had transformed him from a vaunted presidential hopeful into an unemployed politician—and one caricatured as a racist bully at that. It was a dismal loss punctuated by his use of the word “macaca,” the obscure ethnic slur heard around the political world.
Now, as Allen tries to mount a historic comeback—only two ousted U.S. senators in the past 50 years have returned to that august body after losing reelection—it’s not just the tobacco that’s missing. Gone is much of the swagger that marked his ascent to national prominence, the bravado and good ol’ boy authenticity that once drew rave reviews from conservative pundits and favorable comparisons to the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Everywhere Allen goes, a new Democratic “tracker” follows, ready to catch any slip-ups. And just like the subject of the “macaca” moment six years ago, the tracker is of South Asian descent.
To borrow from the sports analogies that Allen, the son of a Hall of Fame NFL coach by the same name, so loves, he can look at times very much like the ballplayer who missed his last shot or dropped the last pass thrown his way: tight, tentative, cautious, even constrained.
As he crisscrosses the commonwealth, Allen is trying to get his mojo back, betting on the fact that if there is one thing America loves better than tearing down its heroes, it’s building them back up again. The first step in his recovery came earlier this month when he swatted away three GOP primary opponents with ease. The bigger test looms in November when he faces Democrat Tim Kaine, who, like Allen, is a popular former governor with a track record of political success. Poll after poll has pegged the race as a dead heat.
The stakes could not be higher. Many analysts see Virginia as a bellwether for control of the Senate. Kaine and Allen have raised more than $15 million between them. Super PACs for each side are armed for battle. And the national party committees have already reserved nearly $13 million in television airtime here this fall—more than in any other state.
In 2006, it was Allen’s defeat that cost the GOP the Senate. This year, he could be the deciding vote to take it back.
A DEEP-ROOTED TREE
For those who know George Allen, the question of a political comeback was always one of when, not if.
The candidate stands more than 6 feet tall, with broad athletic shoulders that make him seem even taller, even if time has stooped them slightly. He grew up in a fiercely competitive family and played quarterback in high school and at the University of Virginia. His role model was his father, the hard-charging head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins who prized winning above all else. The elder Allen traded draft picks he didn’t control, hired a spy to scout his competition, and once even denied knowing his own son (George’s brother Bruce) because Bruce had heckled an official during a game and was about to draw a penalty. “That kid’s not with us,” coach Allen told the referee.
While out of office, George Allen wrote What Washington Can Learn From the World of Sports, and in the book he recounted one of his dad’s favorite sayings: “Every time you lose, you die inside; but every time you win, you’re reborn.” At 60, Allen quite simply isn’t ready to be counted among the dead.
“As you learn from sports, when you get knocked down, you get back up,” says Allen, who spoke with National Journal during a recent swing across Northern Virginia, “and my father would always say, ‘Don’t brood over your mistakes—learn from them and improve.’ And I think of that every single day, and more often than once a day.”
No mistake, of course, was more fateful than what happened that day in 2006 when Allen, while campaigning near the Kentucky border, called out a 20-year-old Indian-American who was tracking him for his Senate opponent. “Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here,” Allen said, pointing. “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.” Allen quickly apologized, saying he didn’t know the word could be taken as an ethnic slur, but it was too late. The fallout consumed much of the rest of the campaign.
The moment derived much of its symbolic power from Allen’s long, checkered racial history. Soon, there was fresh attention for stories about how Allen had once hung a noose in his office (part of a Western motif, he said); voted against a Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday (a holiday he later embraced); had a Confederate flag in his home (part of a flag collection, he explained); had been accused of hurling racial epithets in college (which he denied); and wore a Confederate flag pin in his high school yearbook photo (just a symbol of rebellion, he maintained).
The footage of him as a Senate candidate picking on a college student, meanwhile, fed into the latent bullying image of Allen that his sister had outlined in her unflattering 2000 memoir, Fifth Quarter. On the same page that she described him hurling his brother, Bruce, through a sliding-glass door because he failed to go to bed on time, she wrote that Allen’s favorite TV show had been Hee Haw and “the big, slow-witted Junior” his favorite character. “There was also something mildly country-thuggish about Junior that I think George felt akin to,” she wrote.
So, “macaca” stuck. Exit polls later showed that 37 percent of voters believed that Allen did not “respect minorities.” Of that group, an astounding 92 percent voted for his Democratic opponent, former Navy Secretary Jim Webb. In the end, Allen lost to Webb by fewer than 10,000 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast.
The margin was so close that Allen could have demanded a recount at taxpayer expense. With control of the Senate in the balance, he faced pressure from the nation’s “highest Republican leaders” to do so, according to an Allen adviser at the time. But Allen declined. Recounts are ugly, messy affairs; he was busy drafting a concession speech that foreshadowed a political future.
“Sometimes winds—political or otherwise—can blow the leaves off branches and even break limbs,” Allen said as he conceded, standing beside his wife, Susan. “But a deep-rooted tree will stand, stay standing, will regrow in the next season.”
Allen’s fall from grace was stunning—in both its distance and its velocity. There is no parallel in the last decade, save for those politicians, like Eliot Spitzer or John Edwards, whose national ambitions were snuffed out in sex scandals. Allen hadn’t yet completed his first Senate term in 2005, but he was already being cast as the next great Republican presidential hopeful. “He combines the people skills of Bill Clinton with the convictions of a Ronald Reagan, with the nonthreatening persona of George W. Bush circa 2000,” National Review Editor Richard Lowry famously gushed.
Allen’s every move was refracted through the presidential lens. His name was included in Gallup’s presidential polling; his travel itinerary, with swings across Iowa and New Hampshire heavily scrutinized. He won the 2006 straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Super Bowl of annual conservative gatherings. Allen’s hiring of strategist Dick Wadhams, who had engineered the ouster of Democrat Tom Daschle as Senate majority leader in 2004, was widely seen as the first step in assembling a national campaign team. Wadhams himself was given the presidential treatment, hailed by Slate at one point as “Karl Rove’s heir apparent,” with Allen cast as Wadhams’s Bush.
By December 2005, an NJ poll of 100 political insiders pegged Allen as the No. 1 pick to lead the GOP in 2008, ahead of John McCain and Mitt Romney, who finished second and third.
A year later, all that lay in ruins. Allen had been pulled under by a rip tide of his own gaffes, a surprisingly strong opponent in Webb, shifting public opinion against the war in Iraq and President Bush, and his own campaign’s divided attention between building a presidential operation and winning in Virginia.
“The mistake Allen made was a classic football mistake: looking past an easy opponent to a bigger one,” said Larry Sabato, a college classmate of Allen’s and now the head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “And he lost an easy game, the way teams often do.”
So, as part of remaking his candidacy in 2012, Allen refashioned his team. Gone are the brand-name national strategists like Wadhams, Ed Gillespie, and Mary Matalin, who advised him in 2006. Mike Thomas, who oversaw Allen’s 1993 governor’s race, is back as campaign manager. Longtime allies like Dan Allen (no relation), a strategist during Allen’s time heading the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2004 cycle, and Betsy Beamer are part of his old-new inner circle.
But before Allen could consider running again for the Senate, he had to chart a path out of the political exile into which he was cast. He chose a familiar route: He made some speeches, made some money, and wrote a book.
Allen founded his own consultancy, George Allen Strategies, which promised on its website to help clients “navigate the waters inside—and outside—the Beltway.” Perhaps with an eye toward his next campaign, he never registered himself or his firm as being engaged in lobbying. To avoid such a scarlet “L,” Allen contracted with his former legislative director, Paul Unger, to do any formal lobbying work. Allen earned almost $350,000 from the company, according to his financial disclosure form.
Allen said that the phone calls urging him to seek office again began as early as 2007. First, Republicans tried wooing him to run for governor in 2009. He had held the job with aplomb in the mid-1990s and had, in his only term, dismantled the state’s parole laws, overhauled welfare, and left office with a nearly 70 percent approval rating. “I’ll concede he was a popular and fairly successful governor,” said Brian Moran, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, who was a state legislator at the time.
It seemed natural, then, that Allen would shoot for a return to Richmond rather than the Senate, where his record was thinner and which he had once derided as moving “at the pace of a wounded sea slug.” But Allen passed on the 2009 governor’s race, citing, as so many politicians do, the desire to spend more time with his family. It was a period of reflection, according to interviews with nearly a dozen friends, family, and advisers. The 2006 campaign, and its allegations of racism, had left a deep wound.
“I think politics is a lot more physical than sports,” said Bruce Allen, the general manager of the Washington Redskins and Allen’s brother, with whom he is close. “If [politics] had a commissioner, he would be fining a lot of people for cheap shots.”
Bruce said that his brother approached his reelection loss “no different than any football game: You’ve got to self-scout yourself and decide what you have to do.”
“He did pick up the phone and ask advice and genuinely wanted to know how to be a better person, how to be a better politician,” said Kay James, who served in Allen’s Cabinet when he was governor and now runs an organization that trains African-American leaders. His loss, she said, “didn’t make him bitter. It didn’t make him angry. It just made him stronger.”
Much of what Allen appears to have learned during those intervening years was poured into the pages of his surprisingly introspective 2010 book. It’s hard to read broad swaths of the story as anything other than a step in his rehabilitation, an apologia for what went wrong in 2006 and a blueprint for his triumphant future.
The issue of race is laced throughout, even if “macaca” isn’t specifically mentioned until the closing pages. Allen tapped African-Americans to write both the foreword (former NFL great Deacon Jones) and the afterword (ex-Rep. J.C. Watts). Musings on the topic consume six of the book’s first 17 pages, including Allen’s sharing of how he was “personally moved watching Barack Obama” on election night in 2008. He explained how, as the son of a football coach with racially diverse teams, “in a strange sort of way, I entered adulthood—and probably even public life—not fully comprehending the full gravity of our nation’s struggle for racial equality.”
Allen and his advisers insist they hatched no grand plan for his comeback. What finally pushed him “off the sidelines and into the fight,” says Allen, was watching the government overreach in the early years of the Obama presidency and the faltering economy that followed. Then his daughter graduated from college and, jobless, had to move back home. “Everything coming out of Washington seems to be against us,” he says.
Conveniently, Allen’s 2010 book tour served as a kid-glove campaign: congenial interviews, friendly meet-and-greets, short radio spots, and shaking hands with potential readers (and voters). By the time he formally announced, in January 2011, that he was running for the Senate, his Twitter and Facebook pages from the book tour had seamlessly morphed into campaign appendages.
BACK INTO THE FRAY
Shortly after Allen entered the race, Webb dropped out. In his stead, Democrats recruited Kaine, a close Obama ally and then-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had served as Virginia’s governor from 2006 to 2010.
The Kaine-Allen showdown is one of 2012’s marquee matchups. “Whether George Allen wins or loses this race in Virginia could very well determine whether the next majority leader here in the United States Senate is a Republican or a Democrat,” says Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican and rising star, who appeared with Allen on a recent campaign swing.
For Allen, much has changed since he was last on the ballot, and especially since he last won an election in 2000. For one thing, Virginia is now a presidential battleground, after voting solidly Republican for a half-century. (Obama broke the streak in 2008.) An explosion of new minority voters and rising suburban population in the north pushed the commonwealth into the swing-state column. Between 2000 and 2010, three out of four new Virginia residents were minorities, according to the Center for American Progress; many of them are Democrats.
Now Virginia is ground zero in the presidential air wars. Some weeks, the once-sleepy Norfolk media market has the most political advertising in the country. For Allen and Kaine, that saturation means that, despite their multimillion-dollar operations, they hold far less control over their political destinies than they would like. Obama and Romney, the likely GOP nominee, are expected to drive the turnout here, with the Senate candidates left to compete around the margins. “I suspect this race will probably go the way of the presidential race,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who once headed the House GOP’s national campaign operations.
The battle, then, has centered on the thin reed of voters who might split their tickets: the near-mythical Obama-Allen and Romney-Kaine voters. For Allen, that means making inroads in Northern Virginia, where he hopes his message of laissez-faire economics and a renewed push for cheaper, domestic energy resonates (he has a “Friends of Coal” bumper sticker on his Ford Explorer). He also regularly dispatches his telegenic wife, Susan, who has her own full-time traveling aide.
Kaine, meanwhile, is leaning on his more centrist record as governor to sell himself to working-class whites who are disaffected with the president, particularly in Kaine’s hometown of Richmond and in the state’s more Appalachian areas. Kaine is also courting D.C.’s wealthy suburbs, notably tailoring his definition of the rich, for taxation purposes, at $500,000, double Obama’s threshold. Northern Virginia is home to some of the nation’s most prosperous counties.
To prevent any crossover by GOP voters, Allen has sought to closely bind Kaine to Obama, portraying him as a D.C. insider beholden to the party line. Outside groups have amplified that message on the airwaves.
It’s a line of attack that reveals Allen at his folksy finest. He is at ease campaigning as an outsider, taking aim at overreaching “federales” who strangle the private sector. He won his Senate seat in 2000 by ousting the Democratic incumbent, Chuck Robb, and the governor’s race before that as an underdog. “People are unhappy with Washington, as I am,” Allen says.
No matter that Allen himself is a former governor, senator, congressman, and state legislator, as well as the owner of a Washington-area public-affairs firm. “He always ran as an insurgent,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “He feels better as an insurgent.”
Kaine, meanwhile, reminds voters at every turn of his opponent’s six years in the Senate, where Allen was a loyal Republican foot soldier, rising to the ranks of Senate leadership during the big-spending Bush years. “George Allen’s approach helped create our economic mess,” Kaine said the night that Allen secured the GOP nomination. “Virginians can’t afford six more years” of that.
BUMPS ALONG THE WAY
As Allen wraps up speaking to the more than 60 Republicans gathered among ovens and washing machines at the appliance store, he notices something amiss. The American flag is in the wrong spot. It’s Campaign 101 that the nation’s flag should be displayed on the viewer’s left, with any state or local flag on the right. So Allen walks over and drags the flags into their proper places in front of a giant Allen for Senate sign.
“It’s flag protocol,” he says.
After Allen’s six-year hiatus from the trail, his new campaign apparatus is not yet firing on all cylinders. He has trailed Kaine in fundraising in recent months, falling almost $2 million behind. By late May, Allen had burned through nearly $4 million without airing a single television commercial. His campaign insists it is simply building a modern, grassroots infrastructure to succeed. But as Allen barnstormed in the bedroom communities of suburban Washington earlier this month, he had to navigate through a series of hiccups, glitches, and small crowds.
After the flag incident at the appliance store, the next stop is a realty office run by Pakistani-American Javed Baig. Baig’s staff is shooting video as everyone crams into the office’s mint-colored hallway. Baig says that it’s footage for a pro-Allen commercial that will run on Pakistani channels this fall. The scene, though, seems as much about securing Allen’s endorsement of Baig’s realty firm than the other way around. As Baig introduces Allen, he annunciates his company’s name and then reaches back to shake Allen’s hand without ever breaking eye contact with the camera. Unhappy with the first take, he does it again. Allen’s two aides shift uncomfortably, whispering about a quick exit.
Later, at a nearby senior center, the microphone cuts out as Allen tries to deliver an abbreviated stump speech. The seniors are assembled in their lunchroom, awaiting their seafood pasta, milk, apple juice, pudding, and dinner rolls. When Allen asks for questions, 68-year-old Donna Cermak instantly shoots up her hand. She wants to know: Can they get their lunches already?
“If the only concern on your mind is your lunch, I can stop talking,” Allen says through a laugh.
Allen is undoubtedly a more calculating candidate this time around. As he leaves the senior center, he’s asked about where he stands on GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial entitlement plans, which would overhaul Medicare and Medicaid to tame the deficit. “I admire Paul Ryan for putting forward a proposal,” he says. It’s as much of a commitment as he would make, besides repeating his vow to repeal the Democratic health care overhaul. (Allen’s campaign declined a sit-down interview for this story, although he willingly answered questions between stops on the trail.)
It’s not the only issue that Allen has dodged. Perhaps worried about alienating those Northern Virginians, he has been slippery when asked about whether women should have an ultrasound before an abortion, as required under a new state law, and on pay-equity legislation for women that is stalled in Congress (although he says he supports equal pay).
If among the advice that Allen received during his years in the wilderness was to do a better job keeping his trap shut, he has listened.
The new Allen may be a more disciplined, effective candidate, but absent the firebrand rhetoric, he is no longer a conservative heartthrob. During his appearance with Rubio, it was clear which man was on the upswing of his career. Elizabeth Blackney, an Allen supporter who worked as a Republican political strategist in Virginia during his 2000 Senate run, says that the crowd at a recent rally with Gov. Bob McDonnell in Virginia Beach was tepid. “The contrast with George’s crowds in 2000 was marked,” Blackney says.
At any given Allen event, somewhere in the crowd, Alan Piracha is a living, breathing, filming reminder of what can go wrong on the stump. Last year the Virginia Democratic Party tapped Piracha, a soft-spoken 24-year-old, to videotape Allen’s every public utterance this campaign. He also, like S.R. Sidarth, the young man Allen called “macaca” six years ago, is darker-skinned and is of South Asian descent.
“Just a coincidence,” insists Moran, the party chairman.
This spring, at Virginia’s annual Shad Planking, a fish-fry staple of the state’s political circuit, yellow-clad Allen supporters tried to position their signs to block Piracha’s camera. The cat-and-mouse game that day also included a small cohort of unhappy Confederate activists waving giant flags. They were angry that Allen’s repentance tour had included, in their view, the sullying of the symbol of the Confederacy.
“He had stepped into ‘macaca’ and was wiping it off his boots with our battle flag,” says Frank Earnest, who was wearing a black T-shirt with the Confederate flag and the call number 1-800-MY-SOUTH on it.
“Macaca” may have faded as an issue for average Virginians—a 2011 Washington Post poll had only 15 percent of pivotal independents rating it an “extremely” or “very” important issue—but it continues to cast a shadow over the race. The good news for Allen is that the economy is the issue that has captivated the 2012 electorate, and on that question he holds an edge over Kaine.
A May Washington Post poll found that 54 percent of Virginians called it “extremely important”—and among those voters Allen held a 12-point lead, 53 percent to 41 percent. It’s one of the reasons that Kaine has hammered Allen on his spending record and is running to the Republican’s right on fiscal stewardship. Kaine has tried to turn Allen’s time as governor, during the prosperous 1990s, into a liability by talking about skyrocketing government spending. Kaine, who governed during a recession, points to the economy-forced dip in spending on his watch. As with Allen, super PACs are broadcasting Kaine’s message on the airwaves.
There is also a subtle suggestion in the attacks that Allen, who speaks in a continuous churn of simplified sports metaphors, isn’t up to the job. Few describe him as an intellectual. “I know George and I know his limitations,” says Davis, the former House member, who calls Allen a friend. “George is aware of his limitations, as well.” He reluctantly continues: “There are a lot of people in this business who don’t know what they don’t know…. George is not that kind of guy.”
What is clear is that the Democrats who underestimate Allen, as they did George W. Bush, do so at their peril. Allen may be a candidate chastened—losing, he admits, is “a humbling experience”—but he is also a candidate driven and determined.
The final sports story in his book is that of former Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer. It is a thinly veiled parable for Allen’s own stumbles, and his hopes for redemption. Allen tells how Kilmer persevered through a series of off-field errors and yet always “got up and came back fighting every time.” The climactic moment comes when Kilmer fumbles the ball, only to watch the other team scoop it up and run the wrong way to score for Kilmer’s team. Allen’s takeaway: “You never know how a fumble might turn out.”
“Because we’re not perfect, ‘self-inflicted wounds’ are almost inevitable,” he writes. “But the optimistic, overcoming, fighting spirit that Kilmer displayed on the football field also holds out this possibility: Even when you fumble, you might be able to score points.”
This article appears in the June 23, 2012, edition of National Journal.