Did George Allen Lose His Base Too?
No question George Allen lost the center last week. The arc of his campaign and the exit polls both point to the same reason he's a one-term senator: The polls say 60 percent of independents in Virginia voted for Jim Webb, driven by frustration over the war in Iraq and new questions about Allen's character.
But some in Allen's traditional base are now arguing that they too felt abandoned by the senator and stayed home because he strayed from his longstanding appeal to hard conservatives as someone who stressed "Virginia values"--strict positions on social issues and a comfort with symbols of the Old South.
"Does anyone think George Allen could have used our votes yesterday?" Brag Bowling, a commander of Virginia's Sons of Confederate Veterans, wrote to his members last week in an e-mail. Bowling tells me that Allen's efforts to reach toward the center backfired, making him appear to his base as a panderer who had gone weak in the spine.
Here's Bowling's reasoning:
Anyone who does not think Allen's transparent pandering and joining of the NAACP as a life member hurt his reelection, they are simply out to lunch. Joining the NAACP is tantamount to joining the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and I guarantee that this irritated a lot of Republicans. His trifling with the Battle Flag irritated my group but also irritated a lot of Virginians who are simply proud of the state's history and their ancestral ties. A series of Southern politicians have lost office over similar issues (Roy Barnes and David Beasley for instance) and by picking unnecessary fights. This can cause a severe erosion in your political base. Allen (unlike Hillary Clinton) decided to run for President before winning in his own state. Bad decision. He now joins the ranks of Mark Earley and Jerry Kilgore, Republicans who somehow forgot who they were, where they were, and who brought them to the dance.
I agree that Allen's missteps in this campaign pushed him off his traditional message and manner. Suddenly, voters who thought they knew George Allen saw someone they did not recognize. But I don't see in the year-on-year election results any huge drop in Allen's support among conservative voters. Still, in an election this close, it wouldn't take all that many decisions to stay home or to support Webb--after all, a former Republican, a military man, and now likely the most conservative Democrat in the Senate--to have turned this election.
Bowling believes the Republicans need to focus more strictly on their base:
"Three straight statewide defeats. The base erodes because the candidates are squishy on issues important to their base. I thought joining the NAACP was a horrible tactical move. What conservative Republican joins a group like that? There are other ways of reaching minorities with your message. It was pandering, plain and simple. No political gain was realized. If you remember, Allen led the lynching resolution in Congress. Was that sincere? Was riding around Prince Edward County a bold strategic move? These transparent stunts are so plainly obvious that I would imagine a lot of blacks also wonder what he was up to."
Well, I understand that some of Allen's base may have been alienated, but sorry, my prescription for the state's Republican Party does not entail further efforts to make state's rights activists and Confederate romantics feel catered to; rather, I'll argue that the future of the GOP in Virginia lies in pulling their heads out of the sand and recognizing the changing demographics especially of the outer suburbs of the Washington area. Democrats will continue to pick off seats in the legislature and hold the governorship as long as Republicans present themselves as racially callous, oblivious to traffic and growth issues, unwilling to return a reasonable share of state resources to the economic engine of northern Virginia and fixated on social and moral questions where government has a dubious role at best.
George Allen's out of state advisors really believed that getting the base all riled up about gay marriage would do the trick. But while Virginia is a socially conservative state where there was never any doubt that a same-sex marriage ban would pass, it is also a modern suburban state where most people have ever more fluid definitions of family and morality, and a place where many people make decisions about their lives based on convenience and comfort. I don't particularly agree with those values and priorities, but any party that ignores them paves the way for failure.
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