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.