California 50th Special: A Mixed Blessing for the Democrats

by Stuart Rothenberg December 22, 2005 · 2:59 PM EST

April’s special election open primary in California’s 50th district, and the likely June runoff, give Democrats a terrific opportunity to demonstrate that an electoral wave is building, and that a return to power in one or both houses of Congress is possible in November.

If Democrat Francine Busby wins the special election (or even comes close), the national media will rightly see the results as evidence that a combination of corruption and poor presidential poll numbers are expanding the playing field and putting dozens of additional House districts into play.

But virtually every opportunity also entails risk. The Democrats could find that the election to fill the open seat of former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), who resigned amid a bribery scandal, produces disappointing defeat rather than glorious victory. If that happens, Democrats have a problem, since defeat would raise questions about the effectiveness of the party’s message.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is in a bit of a bind. Does the committee throw everything it has into the race, hoping for an upset and proof that its message of corruption is effective? Or, does it downplay its chances and limit its commitment of resources, knowing that the district’s GOP bent makes it difficult for Busby to pull off a victory?

The Democrats’ problems are magnified by the fact that they won’t know what kind of Republican Busby will face in June until after the April 11 open primary.

Against an over-the-top conservative such as former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, Busby would have a better chance of winning. But against a more centrist Republican, such as former Rep. Brian Bilbray, the Democrat would seem to face a tougher task. The GOP field is likely to be crowded and is expected to include sitting officeholders as well as political neophytes.

The DCCC’s decision also is complicated by the fact that Cunningham has resigned his seat. Without the disgraced former Congressman on the ballot, the Democrats’ “culture of corruption in Washington” argument may be a tougher sell in the special election.

Either way, California’s 50th district is a difficult one for any Democrat. Busby begins as a distinct underdog and in a normal election, she almost certainly would be regarded as a sacrificial lamb, as she was in 2004.

As currently drawn, the district gave 55 percent of its vote to President Bush in 2004 and to Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole in 1996. In 2000, Bush drew 54 percent of the vote against Democratic nominee Al Gore, and Democrat Gray Davis lost the current district during his 1998 and 2002 gubernatorial victories.

In 2004, given the district’s partisan bent and Cunningham’s incumbency, it isn’t surprising that Busby raised just $235,925 and drew only 37 percent of the vote in her Congressional bid.

EMILY’s List, the influential Democratic group that supports strong pro-choice women candidates, did not endorse her in that race. And she was not a high-priority challenger for the DCCC, which gave her no money. She received no contributions from Members of Congress.

That was just last year.

Today, the situation is much different. The DCCC is now actively supporting Busby’s challenge, offering advice to the campaign in a number of areas, including fundraising and communications. DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) gave her $2,000 in June, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) each gave $2,000 contributions in September.

And EMILY’s List has endorsed Busby this time. That endorsement is particularly significant, since the group has earned a reputation for evaluating races in a cold-blooded way. And yes, the decision to endorse puts EMILY’s List’s reputation on the line in the special election.

While the DCCC is helping Busby’s bid and while DCCC Communications Director Bill Burton calls her a “great candidate,” the committee has not yet made a decision on how much money to invest in the race. Sooner or later, however, it will have to make that decision.

So what should the DCCC do? Obviously, the committee’s decision will and should be based to a considerable extent on poll numbers. If Busby seems to have a real chance of winning, Democrats will talk up the race and throw resources into the district. If she doesn’t catch on, there isn’t much point in raising the stakes by making the special election a test of the party’s message.

True, if Busby loses badly, members of the national media may well regard the special election as a indicator of November, but Democrats can dismiss the race merely as a long shot that fell short if they haven’t hyped their prospects.

Still, it will be difficult for the DCCC not to make a big bet on Busby.

Democratic and liberal strategists believe they have learned how to run, and more importantly win, special elections, as they did in South Dakota and Kentucky in recent years, and Busby is running a much more professional campaign than last time, and in a more conducive political environment.

“She’s running a smart campaign. She is a better consumer of advice and a better candidate this time,” one operative told me.

Moreover, if the DCCC doesn’t go all out for Busby, grass-roots activists and the party’s Web loggers are likely to go bananas. For the campaign committee, investing heavily in Busby is likely to produce less criticism and second-guessing than taking a pass on the race.

If Busby wins, Democrats will receive a big boost in their bid to take back the House. The prominence of ethics issues in the San Diego area — not only in Congress but also in the San Diego mayor’s office — combined with Busby’s experience as a candidate and the payoff of a strong showing suggests that Democratic national strategists may not be able to resist making California’s 50th a test of the 2006 electoral environment.