California Blues: A Bit of a Downer for the Democrats

by Stuart Rothenberg June 12, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

That sigh you heard Wednesday morning coming from national Democrats wasn’t the roar of approval and satisfaction that they hoped for. The results are in from California, and the news was surprisingly good for Republicans.

Former and future Rep. Brian Bilbray drew just under 50 percent of the vote in the special election in the 50th district, holding the open seat for the GOP. Democrat Francine Busby’s 45 percent showing was right in line with past Democratic efforts in the district — and therefore was disappointing.

Given the national political environment, the “lobbyist” line of attack that Democrats used against Bilbray and the nature of the vacancy — GOP ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham took bribes and went to jail — Democrats had every reason to believe that Busby could increase her percentage of the vote by at least a couple of points. But she didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong: Republicans shouldn’t misinterpret the results as evidence that everything is fine and dandy as they head into the November elections. In fact, Bilbray polled under the normal Republican vote on Election Day. A similar 5-point drop-off in the GOP vote in other districts would cost them plenty of seats and possibly control of the House itself.

Moreover, Busby was a mediocre candidate, and the National Republican Congressional Committee had to open its checkbook to save the seat. So it was a win, but a very costly one, for the Republicans.

Even so, Busby’s inability to expand her vote — and Republican voters’ apparent unwillingness to vote Democratic — does raise questions about the prospects for Democratic challengers and open-seat candidates in Republican-leaning, but now seemingly competitive, districts such as Minnesota’s 6th, Wisconsin’s 8th and Nevada’s 2nd.

Possibly even worse for the Democrats was the news out of California’s 11th Congressional district primary and the Democratic nomination for the gubernatorial race.

In the 11th district, Democrats nominated Jerry McNerney over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s preferred candidate, airline pilot Steve Filson.

McNerney is a nice man, and he deserves a lot of credit for defeating Filson, who had the backing of powerful state and national Democratic insiders. But Rep. Richard Pombo (R) pummeled McNerney 61.2 percent to 38.8 percent in 2004, and there is absolutely no reason to believe Pombo won’t win again this year.

Pombo’s 62 percent showing in his own primary certainly was nothing to write home about. Any incumbent who loses more than one-third of the vote in a primary has problems in his own party and has reason to be concerned about his political future.

But McNerney is simply too far to the left to knock off Pombo in this district, and he doesn’t project the kind of persona that a challenger needs to win against an incumbent. That’s the very reason why Democratic insiders lined up behind Filson, who seemed more polished and formidable.

The big question for the DCCC is whether it will throw its firepower behind McNerney, a favorite of liberals and the netroots.

If DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) decides to take a pass on the race, liberal Web loggers within his party will scream. If he invests significantly in McNerney, he will take resources away from other races that offer the DCCC much better opportunities for victory.

In any case, Republicans now have reason to believe that Pombo won’t have the kind of nail-biter he could have had if Bilbray had lost and the Democrats nominated Filson.

Also in California, Democratic voters nominated state Treasurer Phil Angelides for governor. Angelides had support from virtually all of the party’s big hitters in his competitive primary against state Controller Steve Westly.

Angelides’ win probably improves the prospects of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who now finds himself facing a veteran liberal politician rather than a wealthy businessman with moderate leanings. Angelides’ 48 percent to 43 percent primary victory suggests he has plenty of work to do if he is going to unite Democrats for the general election.

Democrats did receive one bit of good news on Tuesday, but it came from Montana, not California.

Despite polls showing a neck-and-neck race, state Senate President Jon Tester routed state Auditor John Morrison for the Democratic Senate nomination and the right to take on Sen. Conrad Burns (R) in the fall.

Tester has Burns’ homey appeal and lacks Morrison’s personal baggage. And while Republicans surely will attack the Democratic nominee as a liberal, Democrats have to like their chances of picking up this Senate seat with Tester as their nominee.