California’s 50th: Worst Nightmare or a Bit of Relief for the GOP?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 8, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

[Editor's Note: This column was originally published on Monday, before the election.]

Campaign strategists in both parties are holding their breath as the special election in California’s 50th district comes down to the wire. Neither party is expressing confidence in a race that increasingly looks like a test of Democratic efforts to ride a wave of voter dissatisfaction and of Republican efforts to energize the party’s conservative base.

Republican insiders are hoping that a late surge in GOP voter turnout and partisan voting will prevent a possible Democratic upset to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R).

Democratic partisan intensity “is much higher than ours,” one knowledgeable Republican told me, adding, “We are trying to get Republicans to perform at anything close to the same rate that they have in the past.”

But even if former Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) ends up squeaking out a narrow victory against Democrat Francine Busby — a scenario that is still far from certain in the final hours of the campaign — a strong Busby showing (say, near 50 percent) would be evidence that the Democratic Deluge of ’06 has begun.

Independent voters are behaving like Democrats, giving Busby a chance to trounce Bilbray by as much as 2-to-1 among that pivotal group. Even worse for Republicans, too many GOP voters are defecting to a third-party candidate.

Private polling shows that voters in the district strongly disapprove of the job President Bush is doing, and they believe the country is on the wrong track. For Bilbray, who already faces obstacles of his own, that is a big albatross.

The former Congressman’s work as a lobbyist has made it easier for Democrats to demonize him, and Democratic strategists have done an effective job attacking Bilbray for once missing votes to go on a junket to Australia.

Bilbray also has been hurt by attacks from anti-immigration conservative William Griffith, who is on the special-election ballot as an Independent, and from businessman Bill Hauf, a conservative who is not running in the special election but who is competing in the regular GOP primary, which, in an unusual circumstance, is occurring the same day as the special election. Hauf has described Bilbray as a “Clinton liberal” in a direct-mail piece.

GOP insiders also complain that the timing of the special-election — coinciding as it does with the date of a hotly contested Democratic primary for governor, but none on the Republican side — has aided Busby’s prospects by giving Democrats a strong reason to go to the polls.

Still, while Republican observers now speculate that special election GOP runner-up Eric Roach, who finished just behind Bilbray in the open primary, almost certainly would have been a stronger special-election nominee because he lacked Bilbray’s baggage, it also has become clear that the GOP’s national problems — including the president’s horrible ratings in the district and his weakness among conservatives — are Busby’s greatest asset.

Busby is widely regarded by dispassionate observers as a “mediocre” candidate who would not have much of a chance of winning the district in anything approaching a normal election environment.

“Her profile is not the perfect fit for that district,” one Democrat acknowledged privately about the “liberal women’s studies lecturer.”

But Busby deserves credit for staying “on message” — attacking Bilbray as a lobbyist and portraying the special election as a choice between change and reform on one hand, and politics as usual on the other. And she has raised more than $2 million for the race.

Still, while some private polling shows Busby with a narrow edge over Bilbray, the Democrat appears to be stuck in the mid-40s in most surveys, suggesting that she has hit precisely the same ceiling that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) did in the district in 2004 and that she herself hit in the April 11 open primary when she drew 43.7 percent of the vote.

And even though the race includes third-party candidates, that showing may not be enough to win the special election since independents rarely draw much more than 8 percent of the vote.

Republican strategists are trying to salvage a win by turning the special election into a referendum on illegal immigration. If they succeed, it could give them an important road map to November.

Bilbray has been an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration — in fact, he lobbied for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that takes a hard line on that issue — while Busby has supported the more moderate McCain-Kennedy approach. Republicans are attacking Busby heavily on the issue, portraying her as a supporter of “amnesty” and as an advocate of welfare and Social Security for illegal immigrants.

But while Republicans bash Busby on immigration, Griffith, the Independent, has been endorsed by the San Diego Minutemen, and he’s attacking Bilbray as insufficiently tough on illegal immigration.

Still, if immigration helps energize GOP voters who are disgruntled with Bush, that formula could prove useful in the fall to Republican candidates in some other districts.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is pouring resources into this race at an astonishing rate in hopes of saving the seat. But the NRCC will not be able to put $5 million into every contest this fall, so a Bilbray victory, if it happens, should not mislead observers into thinking that Democratic prospects in the fall have been exaggerated.