Proof in the pudding

National | The first election to federal office during the Bush presidency goes to the Republicans

Issue: "Trading places," June 30, 2001

in Chesapeake, Va.-It was Randy Forbes's night, but Tom Davis couldn't resist basking in the glow. "I can't tell you what this means to us nationally," Mr. Davis, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told a cheering Chesapeake, Va., crowd on June 19. "When 100,000 voters speak, that's more important [than] one idiosyncratic senator who switches sides." Still smarting from the defection of Sen. James Jeffords, Republicans could be excused for gloating over their win in the special election to replace Virginia Democratic Rep. Norman Sisisky, who died in March. They could even be excused for comparing apples with oranges-picking up a House seat does not balance the loss of a Senate seat-but the race really was a must-win for the GOP. The southeastern corner of Virginia is a classic swing district, which made it the perfect laboratory for testing the messages both parties hope will give them an advantage in 2002. More immediately, of course, the election was a chance to pad the GOP's slight majority in the House. State Sen. Randy Forbes, the Republican nominee, had never lost an election. In a bitter, expensive race, he extended his streak with a four-point win over state Sen. Louise Lucas, giving Republicans a 12-seat majority in the lower chamber. The dollars won't be tallied until long after the votes, but the totals are sure to be huge. In a district with fewer than 650,000 voters, experts estimate campaign expenditures could reach as much as $6 million. But the candidates themselves raised only about $450,000 each. The remainder came from state and national parties and from special interest groups such as the National Abortion Rights Action League (for Ms. Lucas) and the National Rifle Association (for Mr. Forbes). With that kind of money, groups could carpet-bomb the airwaves with advertising. In one notorious spot, a narrator warned that Mr. Forbes "wants to privatize Social Security ... a scheme that could lead to cuts in benefits or raising the retirement age. Your Social Security savings riding up and down on the stock market." "That roller coaster ride has caused a lot of people to have heart attacks," says a man standing in front of a carnival ride. "I'd have the pudding scared out of me," says another woman. Scaring the pudding out of elderly voters was important in the Virginia race, just as it will be nationally in 2002. With a presidential commission expected to recommend sweeping reforms to the Social Security system, Democrats see a chance to poach some conservative older voters who fear such "risky" schemes could endanger their retirement. A loss by Mr. Forbes would have spooked GOP representatives running for reelection next year, leading to congressional pressure to bury the recommendations of the Social Security commission. Now, reform advocates see hope for real debate on a sensitive issue. For Mr. Forbes, keeping the support of older white voters was critical in a district that's 40 percent black. In aiming to become Virginia's first black congresswoman, Ms. Lucas clearly played to her African-American base. She charged that a Forbes ad on crime-filled with shadowy figures who may or may not have been black-inflamed racial tensions in the district. Meanwhile, a Democratic mailer criticizing the Bush tax cut featured a photo of a black child and complained that "12 million of us" would get no tax relief under the plan. The Forbes campaign objected to the us-them implications of the ad, but Ms. Lucas stood by the mailer. As with Social Security, national Democrats were closely monitoring the racial issue. Black leaders still resent what they see as the disenfranchisement of minority voters in last year's presidential contest in Florida. Yellow fliers distributed by Lucas supporters outside the polling places even alluded to the Florida controversy, asking voters to "punch number 116 thoroughly and remove all hanging paper from your punch hole." Nearly a dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus campaigned in the Fourth District, hoping not only to add a new voice to their ranks, but also to send a message to white leaders of the Democratic Party. Six southern states with black populations ranging from 10 to 30 percent will elect U.S. senators next year, and African-American strategists want a big slice of the campaign finance pie. In the coming weeks, both parties will dissect the voting results, looking for issues that worked and messages that backfired. But for one night, at least, shell-shocked Republicans were ready to declare a sweeping victory. "We made history here tonight," Mr. Davis exulted. His proof? The Forbes win marks only the fourth time since 1975 that a special election turned a seat over to the party of the incumbent president. It was a boast that was just as confusing in person as it is in print. Many in the audience looked at each other blankly, trying to interpret the history-making claim. But in the end, prompted by Mr. Davis's fist-pumping exclamation point, they cheered anyway.

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