Virginia Republicans are eagerly eyeing a potential rematch between freshman Democratic Sen. Jim Webb and former GOP Sen. George Allen, who has posted strong numbers in early polls and has the backing of the party establishment in what could be one of the bellwether races of the 2012 cycle.
Mr. Webb’s upset victory in 2006 was hailed as a key blow by Democrats to turn the once strongly Republican-leaning state into a political battleground. Barack Obama’s victory in the state in the 2008 presidential race appeared to solidify the Old Dominion’s status as a swing state.
But Republicans have bounced back, recapturing the governor’s mansion in 2009 and knocking off three Democratic members of Congress in the November midterm elections. Mr. Allen, many Republicans believe, is poised to build on those gains.
Mr. Allen, a former governor before being elected to the Senate in 2000, “is Webb’s biggest nightmare,” said GOP strategist Tom Edmonds. “George Allen is in synch with the Virginia electorate. He also was a conservative long before the ‘tea party’ movement and one who doesn’t frighten Republicans or Democrats. Allen will be able to grab the attention of conservatives all over the country.”
A rematch isn’t a certainty: Mr. Webb has not committed to running for a second term, and Mr. Allen has not declared himself a candidate. But the Republican has stepped up his attacks on his successor, criticizing his recent votes supporting union organizing rights for some public-sector safety workers and against banning congressional spending earmarks.
Mr. Allen pointedly noted that Mr. Webb on those votes broke with his fellow Democratic senator from Virginia, Mark Warner.
“For the second time in barely a week, Senator Webb has canceled out Senator Warner’s vote on an issue of great importance to Virginians and our commonwealth’s economy,” Mr. Allen said in a statement.
A poll released Monday by the nonpartisan Calrus Research Group found Mr. Webb, a first-term senator, essentially tied with his rival with a 41 percent to 40 percent lead over Mr. Allen. Mr. Allen entered the 2006 Senate race a heavy favorite for re-election, but his campaign was plagued by gaffes and the unpopularity of the Bush administration, and he wound up losing to Mr. Webb by less than 1 percentage point.
The Calrus poll follows one in November by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling that showed Mr. Webb leading Mr. Allen 49 percent to 45 percent at the start the 2012 cycle. The fact that the Democratic incumbent could not crack the 50 percent mark sent red flags flying.
“The fact that he is not polling above 44 percent in the [Calrus poll] is a danger sign,” said Ron Faucheux, president of the nonpartisan, D.C.-based firm Faucheux & Co. “Despite his defeat by Mr. Webb four years ago, George Allen’s potential comeback strength is impressive.”
The liberal-leaning Swing State Project political website said that the polls put Mr. Webb in a “fairly dangerous position - well below the 50 percent mark that supposedly represents safety.”
Ben Tulchin, of the San Francisco-based Tulchin Research, acknowledged that Mr. Webb faces a tough 2012 campaign if he seeks re-election. However, he added that a close 2012 contest should be expected, considering the 2006 squeaker and that early polls numbers likely still reflect some on the anti-incumbent sentiment that resulted in overwhelming GOP midterm victories last month.
“He barely won last time, so how could he expect to have an easy race next time?” Mr. Tulchin asked. “And this is not a good time for an incumbent Democrat to be on the ballot.”
Still, Mr. Tulchin cautioned that the election is 23 months away and that an economic rebound before that time would certainly improve Mr. Webb’s position.
Neither candidate has announced whether he will run.
Mr. Tulchin says Mr. Webb is hard to read, but he expects the senator will seek reelection.
“He marches to the beat of his own drummer, but he’s not a guy to run away from a fight,” Mr. Tulchin said. “Besides, once you get in Congress, you just don’t get out, especially in the Senate.”
A source close to Mr. Allen said the polls numbers and recent discussions, includes ones with potential voters and the GOP establishment, have been “very encouraging” and that he will make a decision about running after the first of next year.
GOP strategists including Mr. Edmonds and Jon Brabender say they see no need for Mr. Allen to apologized again for a mistake during his 2006 Senate-reelection campaign. Mr. Allen used the word “macaca” to refer to young Indian America man videotaping or “tracking” the event for Mr. Webb’s campaign. Mr. Allen apologized, saying he didn’t know the meaning of the word, which is widely considered a pejorative. However, his campaign fell apart after that.
“That’s yesterday’s news,” Mr. Edmonds said. “Mr. Allen doesn’t need to do anything but look forward.”
Mr. Brabender helped Louisianan Sen. David Vitter easily win reelection this year, despite a 2007 incident in which Mr. Vitter’s phone number was included in a published list of phone records from a company connected with a prostitution service.
“David Vitter was talking [in 2010] about issues that mattered most to voters while his opponent was interested in the past,” Mr. Brabender said. “George Allen doesn’t need to spend a lot of time reliving this issue with voters. And 2006 was a terrible year for Republicans. George Allen can win in 2012 without a doubt.”
David Heller, president of the Democratic strategy firm Main Street Communications, said Mr. Allen’s biggest downside is perhaps that he cannot, like many 2010 candidates, sell himself as an outsider coming to Washington to make changes.
Mr. Allen faces potential primary challenges from Gov. Bob McDonnell, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.