I have no way of reading George Allen’s mind, but I’d imagine that, for the second time in six years, he wonders how things got this complicated. In 2006 the former Virginia governor looked likely to win a second U.S. Senate term, and even was being talked up as a 2008 presidential prospect (of course, so was Eliot Spitzer, to give you some idea of how capricious this kind of speculation is). It didn’t seem like things could go wrong for Allen.
Of course things did go wrong, and spectacularly so. Take your pick: the now-infamous macaca moment, his inexplicably angry reaction to the suggestion that he might be ethnically Jewish, the general anti-incumbent sentiment that swept him up. In 2006 Allen was definitely having an Icarus moment, so named for the ancient Greek myth about a youth who flew too close to the sun and was recorded saying something racist. Years later, with anti-incumbent sentiment running even higher and Sen. Jim Webb’s retirement removing the incumbent advantage from the equation, it seems natural that Allen would think the time is right for another shot.
But as it happens, Allen has much the same problem at the state level as his fellow sure thing Mitt Romney is having at a federal level. Both men last ran for office when the conservative political landscape was vastly different. And now that they’re back in the act, both must deal with insurgencies from candidates who are far to their right, and, in some cases, kind of insane.
Allen’s first competitor for the Republican nomination actually announced before he did: Chesterfield County’s Jamie Radtke, a tea party activist whose more colorful positions include advocating for the repeal of the minimum wage and opposing state legislation that would require health insurance coverage for employees’ children with autism-spectrum disorders. Radtke appeared to have some real momentum; she picked up a slew of endorsements, including prominent conservative blogger, radio host and CNN contributor Erick Erickson.
Erickson, however, soon retracted his endorsement. His reasoning for the retraction was as honest as it was hilariously cynical: His rich backers were friendly with Allen. In August, Radtke spoke at a gathering held by Erickson’s blog, RedState.com; Erickson later described her speech as a “train wreck” and commenters on the site deemed her a “rambling idiot.”
But now Allen and Radtke have been joined in the primary field by someone even less ready for primetime: Delegate Bob Marshall. His career highlights include trying to ban gay people from the Virginia National Guard, sponsoring a bill to arm college professors and, of course, that time he claimed disabled children were God’s punishment for women who’d gotten abortions. In an extremely Bob Marshall-esque move, he kicked off his campaign by drafting Virginia state Sen. Dick Black, who claimed last fall that there was no such thing as spousal rape, as his campaign manager.
Marshall, like Radtke, is a long shot for the nomination, and unlike her, has legislative work under his belt that can draw a certain electoral element away from Allen. Chief among these is his namesake, the state constitution’s anti-gay marriage Marshall-Newman Amendment.
Of course there’s still a 99-percent chance (and that’s a conservative estimate) that Allen will be his party’s nominee by November. Among the current Republican candidates, Allen is the only one whose poll numbers indicate he could beat likely Democratic nominee Tim Kaine. Neither Marshall nor Radtke are serious or palatable candidates. But neither is Rick Santorum, and that hasn’t stopped him from being a huge pain for Mitt Romney’s presidential hopes simply by appealing to a fringe that Romney’s afraid to embrace.
The worst-case scenario for Allen is one that already played out for several establishment candidates in 2010’s midterms, in which fringe candidates such as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Arizona’s Sharron Angle and Alaska’s Joe Miller pulled out unlikely primary victories only to be handily defeated in the general election.
It should have been easy for Allen this time around. All he had to do was prove himself superior to the insurgents by demonstrating his ability not to be a liability in the media. But Allen, of course, already has proven that even he can’t necessarily do that. Shortly after announcing his candidacy a year ago, he asked African-American reporter Glenn Melvin, who has no sports experience, what position he played. Tip O’Neill may have been right that all politics is local, but “local” isn’t necessarily the same thing as “sane” or “electable.” S
Zack Budryk majors in journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University.Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.