Senate Rerun Victories Very Rare

Posted January 25, 2011 at 5:58pm

Former Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) is running against history as he makes a bid for his old seat in 2012: Just one former Senator in the past 50 years was defeated after serving a full term and then elected again to the chamber.

In total, 16 Senators have found their way back to the chamber after being defeated for re-election since the direct election of Senators was instituted in 1914, according to the Senate Historical Office. Two of those were defeated and re-elected more than once. Former Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) was the last person to manage the unlikely feat, getting elected again in 1988 after a 1986 defeat.

Allen made it official Monday that he intends to add his name to that list, announcing in an online video that “it’s time for an American comeback.”

In an interview with Roll Call, Gorton said that when he was approached to run again just two years after being defeated, his close advisers said he was faced with a decision to run one of two ways: Tell the voters that they erred in not re-electing him or admit that he had made mistakes and promise to do better if given the chance. He chose the second option.

Owning up to mistakes from the last time around should be the first order of business for a second bid, Gorton said.

“I don’t see George Allen saying anything about how he screwed up, even though he did,” Gorton said. “If you’re going to do it a second time, I think you have to be very humble.”

To take on Sen. Jim Webb (D), who knocked him from office and remains undecided about running for re-election, Allen will first need to weave through the Republican primary race, which could include at least three other candidates.

However, Republicans in the state believe Allen is building the kind of campaign that will be difficult for anyone to contend with, including Webb.

“He’s building a juggernaut,” said a Virginia Republican strategist who is not affiliated with the campaign.

The strategist pointed to the recent hire of Tim Murtaugh, who served as a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association in 2010 and previously as communications director for the Virginia GOP.

Allen has also hired Katie Wright, a former deputy communications director for the Republican National Committee whom Republicans in the state credit with assisting in the ouster last year of three Democratic Congressmen.

Thanks to those hires and others, the strategist said, “George Allen will run the cleanest, most mistake-free campaign you have ever seen.”

It was a verbal gaffe that caused Allen’s biggest stumble in his 2006 campaign, when he referred to an Indian-American Webb campaign volunteer who had been tracking him with a camera as “macaca.”

The flub marked the beginning of a YouTube campaign era and became a persistent problem, in part because Allen didn’t handle it well.

On Monday, Allen told the Virginia blog Bearing Drift that he regretted the remark, considered to be a slur in some cultures.

“I needlessly brought a college student who was following me around, all over Virginia, into the race, and I should not have,” Allen said. “He was just doing his job, and I should not have made him part of the issue. And I regret it.”

On a conference call with Virginia reporters Tuesday, Webb refused to comment on Allen’s candidacy and said he was still consulting with his family about whether to run for a second term. He highlighted the fact that it is an eight-year commitment at this point.

“I feel like we’ve done a lot of good since I’ve been in the Senate,” Webb said, noting his leadership on criminal justice reform and America’s relationship with Southeast Asia. “It’s been good, I hope, for the people of Virginia. I think they feel that way, and I enjoy serving my country.”

While ex-House Members make it back to the chamber fairly often, Allen’s comeback attempt has a higher historical bar.

Another potential rematch this year had been between Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and former Sen. Jim Talent (R), whom she defeated in 2006. But Talent is not expected to run. 

One recent unsuccessful effort was made by former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), who tried in 1996 to win back his seat from Sen. Paul Wellstone, the Democrat who defeated him six years earlier.

Gorton, who was best friends with Boschwitz in the Senate, made it back after only a two-year absence. Like Boschwitz, Allen is running after a six-year hiatus, which Gorton said was tougher. Not since former Sen. Chapman Revercomb
(R-W.Va.) in 1956 has a Senator sat out at least six years before returning. 

In an interview with Roll Call, Boschwitz said he felt the break had done him good. “I felt refreshed after six years, and my time back in the private sector gave me a good perspective and put the whole Senate in perspective,” he said.

“My advice is get good consultants, put together a good organization on the ground and raise the money that will allow you to define your opponent,” Boschwitz said. “You just have to be prepared and hope that the year will be better than 2006.”