Jewish World Review March 30, 2001 / 6 Nissan, 5761
John H. Fund
Sisisky's district, which stretches from the Navy town of Portsmouth through tobacco and peanut country to the plantations surrounding Richmond, is not typical of America--it's 39% black and relatively rural--but you can't imagine a more marginal district. Last year George W. Bush won the district by only 473 votes out of 237,000 cast--50.1% of the two-party vote. Sen. Chuck Robb, the Democratic incumbent, carried the district with 51% of the vote while losing statewide.
Previous election have been just as close. In 1996 Bob Dole prevailed by 1,682 votes over Bill Clinton. Four years earlier, Mr. Clinton won the district by only 745 votes. No other district in the country has seen three straight presidential elections in which the winner carried the district by less than one percentage point.
Since party nominees for Virginia special elections are normally chosen by party committees rather than in primaries, a special election could be held as early as June, right in the middle of the debates in Congress over President Bush's tax and budget priorities. Should the GOP capture a seat that has elected only one Republican in its history, the party will gain valuable political momentum. If Democrats hold the seat in a state where Republicans hold every statewide elected office, they can crow that George W. Bush's popularity is ebbing and they are on track to retaking the House next year.
The special election will also set up a fascinating contest between two political powerhouses. Gov. Gilmore became the chairman of the Republican National Committee largely on the strength of his successful effort to win both houses of the Virginia Legislature for Republicans in 1999. He did so by raising money and recruiting candidates for precisely the kind of rural, once solidly Democratic districts that Sisisky represented. He will come under pressure to replicate that feat.
At the same time, Democrats have a clear base of support in the district's 39% black population, one of the highest African-American proportions in any district where Republicans have a shot. The NAACP and labor unions proved impressively organized in getting out voters for Democrats in last November's election, but they will now be asked to deliver high turnout levels in a special election held during the vacation season.
Polls are constantly taken to measure a president's popularity and
effectiveness, but what decides elections is which voters are most
motivated to go to the polls. For serious political observers, the special
election this summer in Southside Virginia will be a more important
barometer of how George W. Bush is doing than any poll. It should
prove to an exciting--and expensive --