California 50: Race Far From Over

April 17, 2006 · 12:07 AM EDT

The result of Tuesday’s special election in California’s 50th Congressional District has Democrats claiming the mantle of victory and foreshadowing sweeping change in the U.S. House of Representatives in the November election.

But the reality of the situation is much less clear.

This week’s election was not a win for Democrat Francine Busby. She was the top vote-getter in an 18-candidate field, but she was the only serious Democrat in the race compared with a half-dozen active Republican candidates who split the larger Republican vote.

For Busby, the first 44 percent of the vote she garnered was the easy part, but the last 6 percent she will need to win will be much more difficult. Her performance was unimpressive considering she received roughly the same percentage that Sen. John Kerry , D-Mass., received in the district (44 percent) against President George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election.

President Bush and the Republicans have endured virtually 16 straight months of bad news and falling poll numbers since then, and Busby’s inability to break through the Democratic ceiling in this special election should make Democrats uneasy.

The 50th District is a seemingly perfect scenario for Democrats to test their “culture of corruption” message. They can run against not only indicted former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but the district’s very own former congressman, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned after pleading guilty to charges of bribery and tax evasion.

But rational Democrats are not calling the 50th District race a bellwether because they understand the Republican nature of the district. Make no mistake, Cunningham’s behavior put this seat in play, not DeLay’s, Abramoff’s, or President Bush’s.

Democrats are treading lightly in setting expectations because they face the possibility of losing on June 6, thereby losing much of the punch from their “culture of corruption” message. National Democrats and Busby are claiming victory and talking about “exceeding expectations,” but that is little more than a firewall of positive rhetoric for when she fails to reach 50 percent in the runoff.

So what does it all mean? Nothing yet.

Tuesday’s result represented a status-quo election. Busby benefited from the focused support of a national Democratic Party determined to chip away at the Republican majority this spring, rather than waiting until November. But her initial showing failed to demonstrate widespread voter discontent with the Republican Party…

Read the rest of the column in the April 16, 2006 edition of the North County Times.