Friday, May 19, 2006

Busby stuns Bilbray

That's my prediction for the headlines on the morning of June 7 in the San Diego Union-Tribune and the North County Times, the two daily newspapers that serve California's 50th congressional district, just north of San Diego.

Francine Busby, a Democrat, is campaigning in a special election runoff to fill out the unexpired portion of the term to which Randy "Duke" Cunningham was elected in November 2004.

The special general election was held on April 11. In that race, there were 18 candidates: two Democrats, 14 Republicans, and and two Independents. Under the rules that governed the election, whoever won 50 percent plus one of the votes cast would fill out the remaining eight months of the term; if no one won the requisite majority, then the top vote-getter from each party would compete in a runoff election to be held on June 6.

National Democrats hoped that they could pick up this Republican seat as a fluke, and not without good reason. In any normal year, this district is rock-solid Republican: It's 44-30-26 percent GOP-Dem-Ind by registration, and votes 65-35 percent GOP at the congressional level historically. But given the fact that the special election was necessitated by the resignation of Duke Cunningham (as the result of his personal corruption), whose trials and tribulations dominated news coverage in the district for six months, and given the Democrats' belief that what they call "the GOP Culture of Corruption" will serve as a significant voting issue this year, CA-50 was viewed as Ground Zero of the Corruption Argument: If it could work anywhere, it would be here.

Consequently, national Democrats poured money into the district on Busby's behalf. National Republicans believed the only way they could lose this seat would be if, because of the unique circumstances surrounding the general election, Busby would be able to win 50 percent plus one on April 11 -- so they poured money into the district, too, with negative ads whacking her.

It wasn't surprising that Busby, familiar to the district's voters from her 2004 run against Cunningham (which she lost, 65-35 percent), took far more votes than anyone else on the night of April 11: she pulled in roughly 44 percent of the vote. That was enough to impress some people, but there was a great sigh of relief at 110 First Street SE, in DC, headquarters of the National Republican Congressional Committee -- close, but no cigar.

The next highest vote-getter was a Republican, the moderately conservative former Congressman Brian Bilbray, who eked out a win over the more conservative newcomer/self-funder Eric Roach by 15.3-14.5 percent, or just over 1,000 votes.

Thus, the special election runoff would feature Busby v. Bilbray, and it was widely believed that Bilbray would be able to rally Republicans around him in time for the June 6 runoff election. Several of the other GOP candidates who had made the race -- led by Richard Earnest (a former client of mine) -- moved immediately to endorse Bilbray and rally their supporters around him in hopes of holding the seat on June 6.

The one big holdout at the time was Roach, who bided his time and considered continuing his campaign for the GOP nomination in the primary election to be held concurrently with the special election runoff.


That's right: Complicating the analysis of what's going on in CA-50 is the fact that on June 6, TWO elections will be held simultaneously -- the first will be the special election runoff between Democrat Busby and Republican Bilbray, to fill out the remainder of the term through January 2007; the second will be the regularly primary election, so that each party can select its nominee for the full term that begins in January 2007 and runs through January 2009.

Busby, not surprisingly, is the Democrats' candidate in both the special election runoff AND the primary election; right now, Bilbray is the GOP candidate in the special election runoff, but could still have a fight on his hands for the GOP nomination for the full term.

Until earlier this week, it was expected that Bilbray's only potential challenger in the primary election might be Roach, who had already invested almost $3 million of his own money in building his name ID in the district during the course of his campaign in the special election. So again, there were huge sighs of relief at 110 First Street SE when Roach -- who came to Washington two weeks ago to meet with conservative leaders to discuss continuing his primary challenge -- announced he would NOT challenge Bilbray in the June 6 primary.

Those sighs may have come too soon. One of the other Republicans who ran in the special election on April 11 is Bill Hauf, another conservative self-funder (he spent more than $1 million of his own money to win 1.6 percent of the vote). On Monday of this week, Hauf announced that conservative Republicans in CA-50 were unrepresented by Bilbray, and Hauf would run against him in the primary, for the right to take on Busby in the regular November election. Vowing to spend "whatever it takes," Hauf let fly with his first mail piece.

So now Bilbray will be taking hits from Busby on his left and from Hauf on his right for the next three weeks. Hauf says he's endorsing Bilbray in the special election runoff -- even as he plans to spend hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars to win the GOP nomination for the full term. Does anyone believe the vast majority of voters are sophisticated enough to know the difference between the two elections? Is it fair to expect that a significant number of GOP voters will actually be smart enough to vote for Bilbray in the special election runoff, and then vote for Hauf in the primary election?

Likely not. More likely, Hauf's attacks from the right will siphon off enough support that some GOP voters either vote for Hauf in the primary election and skip voting in the special runoff election, or, worse, they could just stay home altogether.

The most recent polling in the race shows Busby leading Bilbray by 47-40 percent. More worrisome for Bilbray: that 7-point lead for Busby represents a 9-point shift since April 20, the last time the poll was in the field, when Bilbray led Busby by 45-43 percent.

Of course, there is one other potential outcome: Bilbray could win the special election runoff and lose the GOP nomination. That result would be one for the books, wouldn't it?


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