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.