Election in California a Cliffhanger

By Chris Cillizza
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, June 4, 2006

The California special election to replace imprisoned former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) is a virtual dead heat just 48 hours before voters head to the polls, prompting alarm among Republicans who worry that a loss in a historically conservative district could presage a national trend against them in the fall.

The contest between Democrat Francine Busby and Republican former congressman Brian Bilbray in the San Diego area's 50th District is so tight in both public and private polling that campaign operatives from both parties are saying it is too close to call.

National Republicans, alarmed by the prospect of a loss in such a closely watched race, have pumped millions of dollars into the contest, far outspending the Democrats.

Ellen Malcolm, the president of Emily's List, a group that financially backs female candidates -- including Busby -- who support abortion rights, was one of the few willing to predict the outcome. "This is a rock-solid Republican seat which I think they are going to lose," she said.

Malcolm, as well as some national Democrats, say the race is so tight because of a national political atmosphere that has turned toxic for Republicans and could result in the Democratic Party returning to majority status come November.

Republicans say that the California race is close because of a confluence of factors unique to the district, including Cunningham's forced resignation, the scheduling of the race to coincide with a competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary, and Bilbray's background as a former member of Congress and lobbyist. Republican leaders say that no broad conclusions about the state of the electorate can be drawn from this race.

"Every week, Democrats throw something against the wall and hope it sticks," said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Privately, however, some Republicans say that a loss Tuesday would be a stunning symbolic blow to their party, which has been roiled over the past year by faltering poll numbers and an apparently growing belief among voters that change may be in order. Faced with that unappealing prospect, the NRCC has spent more than $4 million to hold the seat -- a massive sum, given the district's demographics.

The surprising competitiveness in the 50th District comes amid signs that a handful of previously safe Republican incumbents -- such as Reps. Curt Weldon (Pa.), J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.) and Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.) -- will face serious challenges in the fall.

Even after Cunningham's admission that he accepted millions of dollars in bribes from a defense contractor and his subsequent resignation from Congress, the race to replace him was not initially seen as an opportunity for Democrats.

President Bush carried the district with 55 percent of the vote in 2004. The voting pattern in the open primary on April 11 changed little. Busby took 44 percent -- the same percentage Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won in the presidential race -- while 16 Republicans split the remainder. Bilbray, who represented the San Diego area's 49th District in the 1990s, emerged as the GOP nominee to challenge Busby in the June 6 runoff.

In the weeks after the primary, the Republican base began to splinter rather than coalesce. Wealthy real estate investor Bill Hauf decided to challenge Bilbray for the Republican nomination for a full term (both the special election and regular primary election will be on Tuesday's ballot) and began attacking the former congressman as a liberal. Independent William Griffith, who has the support of the San Diego chapter of an anti-immigration group, the Minutemen, is also complicating Bilbray's outreach to conservatives.

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