Are Virginia's Democrats Doomed?

Yesterday, Republican Randy Forbes narrowly beat Democratic
Louise Lucas in a special election for Virginia's 4th
Congressional District. Predictably, the GOP is claiming
that this amounts to a "bellwether" victory for their
president and their party; as goes Virginia's fourth CD, so,
apparently, goes the nation. Also predictably, this is
mostly nonsense. There's no doubt that this was a win for
the GOP, which now holds a seat formerly occupied by the
late Norman Sisisky, a Democrat. And it's a setback for
Terry McAulliffe's Democratic National Committee, which is
pouring serious money into Virginia these days (and which
dispatched grassroots guru Donna Brazile to help out Lucas).
But it's not at all clear how much broader significance the
Forbes victory has -- for the district, for Virginia, or for
George W. Bush.

notwithstanding -- that the Democrats would likely lose
Sisisky's seat if it ever came open. Though the Wall
Street Journal
loated that Lucas lost an "ancestrally Democratic House
seat" and exposed "several weaknesses in [the Democrats']
political playbook," there's a big difference these days
between an "ancestrally Democratic House seat" and a
liberal House seat. Lucas, a moderate liberal, ran a
moderately liberal campaign premised on high black turnout.
But though one-third of the 4th CD is black, it's
increasingly a conservative district, dominated by a number
of large military bases and several equally large defense
contractors. So it's no surprise that Sisisky was a
center-rPro-life, a member of the Blue Dog coalition, and a master
of defense pork, Sisisky could survive pretty easily in the
4th. Any non-incumbent Democratic challenger with remotely
left politics faced an uphill climb from the beginning.

Second, Virginia as a whole has been trending Republican
for some years now. So -- Republican spin notwithstanding --
Lucas' loss was more the dénouement of an old trend than
illustration of a new one. Conservative spinners gloat how
just a few years ago, Virginians elected their first
black governor, and gee, the Democrats must have really gone
off the liberal deep end to lose this seat. But
Wilder's victory was more than a decade ago, in 1989. In the
intervening years, the GOP has won back the governor's
mansion (in 1993), swept the rest of the statewide offic> the state house (in 1995), and finally taken the other of
Virginia's two Senate seats (last year, when former governor
George Allen beat out Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb). This
trend is not irreversible -- the hidebound Virginia
Democrats needed a shake-up, and the Democrat's candidate
for governor in 2001 currently leads the GOP's -- but it
does exist.

Finally, Forbes' victory means very little for George W.
Bush. The same day the Journal was gloating over
Lucas, in fact, the New York Times published a poll
with very bad news for Bush. According to the Times,
the fraction of voters who think that Bush cares about what
they care about -- what my friend Josh Marshall might call
Bush's empathy-meter -- is down to a dismal
25 percent. And Bush's personal approval rating has dropped
seven more points since March, leaving them lower than Bill
Clinton's at the same point in Clinton's first term.

But at this point in 1993, Clinton's political shop and
P.R. operation were both in utter disarray -- which
suggests two things for Bush. First, that the sheen is
coming off Bush's famously disciplined press operation.
(Only 33 percent of the public approves of Bush's response
to the current energy "crisis," for instance -- a crisis
that exists largely in the minds of Karl Rove and Ari
Fleischer, and which now threatens to bite the Bushies in
the ass.) And second, that perhaps Bush's policies are not
nearly so popular as his cheerleaders in the conservative
press would like