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.
Bilbray said the key to his victory on Tuesday is for Republicans "to understand that any vote that is not for Brian is at least a half a vote for Busby."
The fissures within the Republican base have coincided with a sharp decline in Bush's job approval rating and in the number of people who believe the country is headed in the right direction.
"If it weren't for the broad discontent with current administration and Republicans in general, [Busby] wouldn't be running nearly as well," said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego. Jacobson noted that since 1966, of the 195 congressional elections in California districts where Republicans held a voter registration advantage, Democrats won four.
Busby, who took 36 percent of the vote in her 2004 race against Cunningham, said there is considerable momentum behind her candidacy, thanks to a combination of Cunningham's transgressions and the national mood. Busby characterized the contest as a "window into what is going on in Congress and a wakeup call." She said, "We have the opportunity . . . to send a message from this district."
Bilbray, too, sees the race as a national referendum -- but on immigration, not corruption.
He has castigated Busby as well as many in his own party -- including the president and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- as too soft on illegal immigrants.
"The president and the Senate are very unpopular right now over the amnesty issue," Bilbray said.
McCain does, however, appear in a television ad (paid for by the NRCC) in which he endorses Bilbray, an attempt to persuade loosely affiliated GOP voters to back the former congressman.
History offers mixed messages on the predictive capacity of special elections.
In the spring of 1994, Republicans won special elections for historically Democratic seats in Oklahoma and Kentucky that presaged the fall elections that gave Republicans the majority.
A decade later, Democrats captured Republican seats in Kentucky and South Dakota in special elections but failed to convert those wins into larger national gains in November 2004.
Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, offered a measured approach to finding meaning in Tuesday's elections.
"There is going to be a lot written about [California District 50] win, lose or draw," she said. "I just don't think the outcome changes the prevalent political environment, which is bad for Republicans."