When I was law studentl at George Allen’s alma mater, the University of Virginia School of Law, the Commonwealth’s currently outgoing Senator was beginning his rise to power. He won a special election to Congress in 1991. When the Democrats who then controlled Virginia’s government eliminated his district, he announced his bid for Governor.
Many of my professors, including two right-of-center ones, were skeptical of his candidacy, recalling how mediocre a student he had been. But, during his 1993 gubernatorial campaign, they became impressed with his political skills, with one noting that he had shown qualities reminiscent of Ronald Reagan. He ran a great campaign that year, coming from behind to win a convincing victory. He put together a solid record as Governor, so good that at the conclusion of his term in 1997, GOP candidates swept all three top offices in Virginia.
That year, I met the then-Governor at a rally in Annandale at the close of the campaign to elect his successor. I showed him my cowboy boots which I said I was wearing in his honor. He examined them, asking if they were deerskin (which they were) and asking how they felt. He was quite personable and showed a similar ability to talk to the other Virginians who approached him.
It wasn’t just his campaign style which impressed me, it was also how his strategy. In 1993, social conservative leaders were upset that he didn’t seek their blessing before running. Yet, they refrained from criticizing him because he had appealed directly to social conservative voters.
But, as his aspirations for national office increased in recent years, he seemed increasingly eager to please those social conservative activists whom he had once bypassed. A man who reached out to Log Cabin in 2000, he has becoming increasingly eager to placate the anti-gay forces in the party.
I think that hurt him this year. But, that alone did not account for his defeat. He simply went into this election overconfident and was not easily able to overcome his blunders, as a more deft politician would. Given all his missteps in this campaign, it’s amazing that he came so close to winning. Indeed, he may well have pulled it off had he not brought up the racier passages in Jim Webb’s novel. That appears to have backfired as polls taken immediately after that should a bump in Webb’s poll numbers.
As Allen appears likely to concede, he seems to be accepting his defeat with dignity. With a graceful concession speech, he puts himself in a strong position to run for the seat his senior colleague John Warner is expected to vacate in two years. So, instead of running for President in 2008 as he had hoped, he may well be making a bid to get back into the Senate.
And let us hope that when he does, he recalls that he can attribute his initial success in Virginia politics to more mainstream conservative policies, closer to those of Ronald Reagan than to those of Pat Robertson. George Allen lost this time by fewer than 8,000 votes to a man who “used a video in ads that showed Reagan praising him.“
A Republican may have lost in Virginia, but the image of the Gipper still sways voters. And it’s to that legacy which George Allen must turn if he wishes to rise again in that state’s politics.
UPDATE: In an excellent piece on concession speeches, Peggy noted Allen’s grace in concession: “Sen. George Allen, gentleman of Virginia, said, ‘We are placed here on earth to do something well.’ He vowed to do all he could to help Jim Webb come in and serve in the U.S. Capitol.”