Allen West did not immediately take the stage following his introduction at last weekend's Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. In his place, a horse-mounted Mel Gibson flashed onto two jumbo screens, rallying Scottish national forces against the approaching armies of Edward I. Only after Gibson's Braveheart monologue concluded did West emerge to a standing ovation. For anyone who had missed the point, the Fox News commentator unpacked the clip's lesson: It's 1297 all over again, a Braveheart is needed to lead conservatives over the forces of tyranny, and that man is a one-term rep from Broward County named Colonel Allen West.
“This is a good depiction of where we are on the ideological battlefield,” said West. “We look across and think, 'They are too many.' We see the secular humanists, the progressive socialists, the radical Islamists. But we can win back our freedom. I've been on battlefields, and there is no difference between ideological battlefields and battlefields where bullets are flying, because you can lose your life physically, or you can lose your life metaphysically. We face the challenge of raising up a new Braveheart. The American people are looking for someone to come on the battlefield and say, 'Rally around me.'”
West's Braveheart bit was the boldest Hollywood-inspired open at the semiannual Leadership Conference since 2010, when Newt Gingrich strutted out from behind the curtains like a prizefighter and soaked up applause against speakers blasting “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky. Gingrich's position back then resembled West's today. He was a controversial out-of-office firebrand trying to generate buzz for a long shot presidential bid. Gingrich's most important national platform at the time, now possessed by West, was a contributor gig at Fox News.
Since refashioning himself as a conservative media figure, West has equaled his reputation for inflammatory and divisive red-meat rhetoric. In recent media appearances and posts on his website, he's hinted that war hero and Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth may be harboring treasonous thoughts and performed acrobatic feats of logic to fuel his conservatives' 24-hour a day Benghazi hype-furnace. At every turn, he's told conservative audiences that he's pondering a run for the presidency.
But in New Orleans last weekend, there was no apparent momentum for an Allen West presidential candidacy. The black conservative that most excited the crowd was the one who did not attend. A large and dedicated contingent of “Draft Ben Carson” activists worked the floor collecting emails and handing out buttons and pamphlets. Like West, Carson is a contributor to Fox News. Unlike West, Carson has apparently used the airtime to develop traction among the conservative rank and file. Where the retired brain surgeon finished a close second behind Ted Cruz in the event's straw poll, the Army veteran failed to register. Carson's edge over West also likely extends beyond the GOP base. While the former can sit down with NBC's David Gregory to talk about his New York Times best-selling book, West has never been seen trying to appeal to a broader constituency.
But if his perch at Fox means West still has access to a national conservative audience, it's an open question whether he can win another Congressional race in Florida, never mind a Republican primary.
It wasn't long ago Allen West seemed a somewhat plausible bet for the first African-American on a Republican presidential ticket. Among the Tea Party freshman of 2010, he stood out for his fastball stump speech, delivered with the commanding cast and bearing of retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel. During his two-year term, he grew a national conservative following as the quintessential tea party congressman. As his reelection campaign approached, he was no longer just the first black Republican Congressman to win in Florida since Reconstruction, he seemed the black conservative best positioned to advance to the national stage ahead of party turning sharply to the right.
Then he got redistricted.
Based on census data completed during West's term, Florida's Republican-led statehouse redrew the lines of West's district. Because the new map hurt his chances for reelection, some of West's Tea Party supporters smelled a Romney plot to blunt a conservative insurgency in the Sunshine State. After losing a close election to Democrat Pat Murphy, West stayed busy giving paid and unpaid speeches before signing with Fox in May. He is now awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit to redistrict the state yet again, this time along tracks that could grease his return to Congress. (Ironically, the suit has been filed by a coalition led by the League of Women Voters that allege the redistricting of 2012 benefited the GOP.)
“There's a chance the courts will redraw the districts this summer in a way more suited to West's support, at the expense of so-called 'access' districts like [Florida Democrat] Alcee Hastings' district,” says an influential Tallahassee-based consultant for Republican candidates. “We have August 26 primaries. If the courts redraw them in June or July, then you have a sprint to run for Congress. If you're on Fox News and have a funding network to tap immediately, and you're not that far from being an incumbent, those are all built-in advantages for Colonel West. That's why he's keeping his powder dry.”
Those same advantages apply to West's more fanciful national ambitions.
“The Fox News profile helps among the most partisan people you'd want to reach this early in the process,” says the consultant. “It gives him a base with which he can work if he decides to compete in the 2016 primaries.”
“His role at Fox gives him an ability to get his word out without having to pay for it,” says April Schiff, president of the Tampa-based conservative consultancy, Strategic Solutions of Florida. “It's the same thing with incumbents, they're the ones in the news.”
Even with the benefits that come with a perch at Fox, some local observers think his moment has passed, both inside Florida and nationally.
“Allen West will be a minor player,” says Tedd Webb, a veteran radio host at WFLA in Tampa. “He's not much among moderates and I don't see him bouncing back to being Florida's right wing hero.”