States' Primaries Are a Midterm Bellwether

Francine Busby, an underdog in the GOP-leaning district, greets commuters in Encinitas, Calif.
Francine Busby, an underdog in the GOP-leaning district, greets commuters in Encinitas, Calif. (Photos By Sandy Huffaker -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley easily won the Republican primary contest last night against former state Supreme Court chief justice Roy S. Moore, once regarded as a formidable challenger because of his support from social conservatives who cheered his refusal to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from the state judicial building.

Riley will face Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, who in the Democratic primary buried the comeback attempt of former governor Don Siegelman. He had hoped to use a November contest against Riley to showcase his contention that his ongoing corruption trial is a political vendetta by the Republican who unseated him.

The results were among the first to come in a night when primaries and special elections across the nation were being closely watched for signs of the broader political environment that will influence this fall's midterm elections. In the contest with the most national significance, the special election in California to replace imprisoned former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham in a suburban San Diego district, Republican Brian P. Bilbray jumped to a 51 to 43 percent lead over Democrat Francine Busby in early returns. That total included 11 percent of precincts, and all of its absentee ballots -- the latter a significant portion of the total votes expected to be cast.

In the final days of the race, polls showed Busby in a tight contest against Bilbray to complete Cunningham's term in a once-solid GOP seat. A Busby victory in a district where Bush won 55 percent of the vote two years ago would be a clear sign of the headwinds confronting Republicans this fall as they try to keep their 12-year control of the House.

Tuesday's results yielded no significant surprises.

In New Jersey, a famous political name -- Tom Kean Jr., the son of a popular former governor -- won a Republican primary for the right to challenge recently appointed Sen. Robert Menendez (D). Also in the Garden State, former New Jersey Assembly speaker Albio Sires cruised to a primary victory over Assemblyman Joseph Vas in the 13th Congressional District, all but assuring him a seat in Congress because of the heavily Democratic tilt of the district.

In Iowa's Democratic gubernatorial primary, Secretary of State Chet Culver eked out a narrow win over economic development official Mike Blouin and state Rep. Ed Fallon Jr. Culver -- the son of former senator John Culver -- has said he has the best chance of defeating Rep. Jim Nussle (R) in the fall.

And in Montana, farmer and state Sen. Jon Tester trounced Auditor John Morrison, the onetime favorite who was leveled by revelations of an extramarital affair and of an investigation his office had conducted into a company with ties to his onetime paramour. The Democrats' chances to seize control of the Senate are considered more remote than a turnover in the House, but one of their top targets is Sen. Conrad Burns (R), who has been mired in allegations of ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Fearing a damaging, high-profile setback, the National Republican Congressional Committee pumped more than $4.5 million into the California race to help Bilbray, much of it in recent weeks. Busby had scored points by tarring Bilbray, a former congressman from a neighboring district, as a Washington lobbyist. But she hurt her own cause with a verbal blunder last week when she told a largely Latino audience, "You don't need papers for voting."

The former school board member quickly followed that slip by saying, "You don't need to be a registered voter to help" the campaign, but conservative talk show hosts burned up Southern California airwaves this week with charges that Busby was encouraging illegal immigrants to vote.

GOP strategists hoped that would bolster Republican turnout, which may have been depressed by the demoralizing spectacle of their congressman, a decorated Vietnam War pilot, going to prison for bribery. At the very least, Democrats conceded, the gaffe halted Busby's momentum at a critical moment and put her on the defensive.

"She needed a flawless finish to pull this off," said one Democratic Party official in Washington last night, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the results of the election were hours away.

Democratic voters in the nation's most populous state were also deciding yesterday who will challenge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the fall. With 16 percent of precincts reporting, the Democratic establishment's candidate, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, was narrowly leading telegenic state Controller Steve Westly, whose supporters believe he would be a more formidable opponent to Schwarzenegger. The two candidates have spent a combined $70 million.

Democrats in Washington, eager to seize the 15 House seats necessary to wrest control from the GOP, had much at stake in the primaries. The race to succeed Nussle in Iowa's 1st Congressional District -- where Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won 53 percent of the vote in 2004 -- is widely seen as one of the Democrats' best chances at a Republican seat. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had backed trial lawyer Bruce Braley against former state legislator Rick Dickinson. But with 92 percent of precincts reporting, Dickinson held a 156-vote lead.

In the Republican contest, Heart of America Restaurants & Inns founder Mike Whalen had a commanding lead over state Rep. Bill Dix and lawyer Brian Kennedy.

In California, the DCCC has been boosting Navy veteran and United Airlines pilot Steve Filson as the kind of moderate-to-conservative Democrat who can beat House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo, a high-profile target. But in early returns, Filson was losing to Jerry McNerney, a more established face in the district's Democratic politics but a candidate who Democratic strategists on Capitol Hill fear cannot win enough votes in the conservative San Joaquin Valley.

Pombo was running well ahead of Pete McCloskey, a former representative who emerged from retirement after being angered by what he said was corruption in his own political party.

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