- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

The recent special election in a southern Virginia congressional district was billed in advance as a "bellwether" (I am quoting the New York Times) for things to come in the 2002 elections. The incumbent, a relatively conservative Democrat who had held the seat for many years, had died. The rivals in the special election were a white male Republican and a black female Democrat. The district is 40 percent black, and the Democrat hastened to brandish her racial credentials. The Republican was an avowed advocate of Social Security reform, which wasn't expected to play well in the district. Both parties poured huge sums into the race and brought in famous names to campaign for their respective tigers.

It can now never be proved, of course, but it is safe to say that a Democratic victory would have resulted in a mass media orgy. The outcome would have been hailed as proof positive that President Bush was on a collision course with stark disaster unmistakable evidence that he was "governing too far to the right," and that America's voters would teach him a lesson in 2002 by returning the House of Representatives to Democratic control.

Instead surprise, surprise the Republican won handily, increasing the GOP's margin in the House by one more vote. Needless to say, the "bellwether" election promptly dropped down the media's memory hole, and it hasn't been mentioned since. It is, of course, always risky to generalize too sweepingly from the results of a particular local election, but it is fair to note that congressional by-elections are famous for their tendency to go against the party in the White House. Republicans are certainly entitled to take comfort from the results of this vote.

Post-election analyses suggest that this time the Republicans did a much better job than the Democrats of getting out their vote. This is particularly significant because that is exactly what the Republicans, in last year's presidential election, spectacularly failed to do, and nowhere more so than in the state that finally decided that cliffhanger: Florida.

Much has been made of the contention that black voters in Florida were effectively "disenfranchised" by the refusal of voting machines, backed by election officials, to accept ballots cast by black voters. This seems superficially implausible, given the fact that black voters in Florida voted in record numbers. But the charge has been made anyway, and it is certainly true that the Democratic party in the state made a genuinely heroic effort to drag every black voter in the state to the polls. This involved going into black churches and old folks' homes and carting to the polls large numbers of elderly blacks who may indeed have preferred Al Gore to Mr. Bush but were predictably going to have a hard time registering that preference on a ballot that had to be read carefully and then punched or otherwise marked in a particular way. Small wonder that there were large numbers of rejected ballots in heavily black districts.

But there is an important lesson here for the GOP. In many churches and old folks' homes around the country, there are millions of elderly whites who are dependably Republican, but whose friends and relatives let alone precinct captains have not leaned on to vote on Election Day in recent years. They may well feel that they have done their share; now it's somebody else's turn. Worn down by arthritis and other chronic illnesses and often out of touch with public affairs, they are not so much overlooked as simply given a compassionate pass.

But, as the Florida returns show, that is a luxury the GOP can no longer afford. It needs every vote it can get, and that will involve organizing to bring out the Republican vote among the nation's elderly and disabled, wherever they are to be found. Every church and retirement home in the country should have its own Republican captain, armed with a list of elderly members believed to be Republican and dedicated to bringing them to the polls on Election Day.

This is simply too important a resource to overlook, and nobody ought to know it better than Gov. James S. Gilmore III of Virginia the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, in whose own state the GOP has just scored an impressive victory by getting out the vote.

William A. Rusher is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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