When Virginia Republicans gathered last weekend in Northern Virginia, the hot topic of discussion was the 2012 Senate race and former Sen. George Allen’s political comeback.
At the 27th annual Advance, a gathering highlighted by access to elected officials and late-night hospitality suites — often paid for by prospective candidates — one GOP insider said Allen gave the clearest sign yet that he is running by renting out the entire hotel restaurant.
Still, there was a sense among the leaders and activists that Allen, who is gearing up to challenge Sen. Jim Webb (D), would not be coronated as the de facto nominee, despite his inherent advantages.
“With the tea party success this year, anything can happen in a primary,” said Mark Peake, chairman of the Lynchburg Republican City Committee.
“We need to let these guys surface,” added Wendell Walker, vice chairman of the GOP State Central Committee, referring to other potential Senate candidates whose names have been floated.
The party voted Saturday to hold a primary rather than a convention, the method used in 2008. The move bodes well for Allen’s expected campaign.
The decision to hold a convention two years ago pushed then-Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate from Northern Virginia, out of the Senate race because he had no path to the nomination against former Gov. Jim Gilmore at a small gathering dominated by conservative activists.
Insiders told Roll Call that Allen and state Del. Bob Marshall, who is expected to run, preferred a primary. Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, wanted a convention.
“It’s the usual group of suspects” looking at running, said former Lt. Gov. John Hager, who added the names of Rep. Rob Wittman and Richmond Tea Party Chairwoman Jamie Radtke as potential Senate candidates. Hager noted that Allen would be formidable “if he can build up a head of steam.”
Allen, who would face Webb in a rematch of their 2006 contest if nominated, appeared at his own jam-packed party and a few of the meetings over the weekend. But he did not have an official speaking role like a handful of politicians, including House Majority Leader-designate Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
This was hardly the first look many of the activists and leaders in attendance had gotten of Allen in recent months. The former governor has appeared all over the state, speaking to groups large and small, according several GOP leaders.
“He goes to everything,” Peake said. “If you invite him to an event, he’ll come talk to you.”
“All the extracurricular activity points to him running,” said 7th district GOP Chairman Linwood Cobb, who noted that Allen would almost certainly face a challenge for the Senate nomination.
The potential candidates in the GOP primary are far from the only thing up in the air at this stage. The biggest question is whether Webb will run for re-election; he has not said what his plans are for 2012. Webb raised less than $20,000 in the third quarter and had less than $500,000 in the bank at the end of September.
“Webb hasn’t done what you’d expect of someone planning to run,” Peake said.
Regardless of whether he runs, the state GOP is already mapping out a strategy to take back the seat. If Webb does run, ousting him will be a top priority.