Republican Bilbray’s Win of Bellwether Seat Means “Caution” To Democrats (UPDATED)


Just a few weeks ago, many Democrats were cautiously optimistic that local school board member Francine Busby could win the House seat once held by disgraced and jailed Republican Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

Now, in the wake of the news that former Housemember and GOPer Brian Bilbray has won the seat by some 5,000 votes, Democrats should look at the results — and be cautious. Here’s what happened:

A former Republican congressman narrowly beat his Democratic rival early Wednesday for the right to fill the House seat once held by jailed Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a race closely watched as a possible early barometer of next fall’s vote.

Republican Brian Bilbray emerged victorious after a costly and contentious special election race against Democrat Francine Busby, a local school board member.

With 90 percent of precincts reporting, Bilbray had 56,130 votes, or 50 percent. Busby trailed with 51,292 votes, or 45 percent. “I think that we’re going back to Washington,” Bilbray told cheering supporters.

The race — one of dozens of contests Tuesday in eight states — was viewed by Democrats as an opportunity to capture a solidly Republican district and build momentum on their hopes to capture control of the House.

Those are the bare-bones facts. But the San Diego Union-Tribune notes that (a) Bilbray wasn’t a Republican beloved by all Republicans (too liberal) and (b) Busby made a political blunder that will go down in political history as one of biggest ever made in San Diego Count, timed at the very worst time:

Bilbray is a political veteran whose career was spent in the South Bay, as mayor of Imperial Beach, as a county supervisor and then as a member of Congress from 1995 to 2001.

PERSONAL NOTE: As a reporter on the San Diego Union I covered Brian Bilbray from time to time on some stories. He had been an up and coming political star in Imperial Beach, where he eventually became mayor, riding on the force of his personality, the fact a lot of people simply liked him — and his image as a surfer who got involved in politics.

So Bilbray was NOT just another politico from the Republican or Democratic party: even when he left Congress he had a reservoir of good will in San Diego County — where has had high name recognition for many years. MORE:

After losing his seat to Susan Davis, he became a lobbyist, spending some of his time working for FAIR, an anti-illegal-immigration group. Bilbray moved to his mother’s Carlsbad home last year, shortly after Cunningham’s troubles were revealed.

In San Diego there’s an Air America station and then some other stations that broadcast conservative radio talk shows. Immigration has been a huge, ongoing issue in San Diego where residents did not need Congress to turn it into a hot-button issue.

So given Cunningham’s district, Bilbray was on the “right” side of the immigration issue going into the election. But that might have not been enough to turn the tide for him, given the fact he wasn’t pure enough for some Republicans. MORE:

Busby is an 18-year Cardiff resident and has served on the Cardiff school board since 2000. She ran against Cunningham in 2004, and after losing by a wide margin, immediately started campaigning for 2006.

This year’s race pitted a Democrat against a Republican seen by many in his own party as too liberal on social issues, including abortion rights, which he supports. There were nasty TV attack ads financed by both Republican and Democratic national parties and visits by high-profile party leaders.

Despite a substantial Republican voter-registration advantage – 44 Republican, 30 percent Democrat and 22 percent independent – polls suggested a dead heat.

So Busby went into the race with voters who might normally tune her out in that district willing to give her a listen. And what happened next?

Busby focused her campaign on ethics and the “culture of corruption� in Washington – a popular theme among Democratic congressional candidates this year.

But immigration become the defining issue, reflecting its standing atop public opinion surveys in California.

Busby supports the U.S. Senate’s immigration bill, which calls for a comprehensive approach to immigration, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants along with enforcement measures.

That bill is pushed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., which led to an awkward situation for Bilbray, who has said the bill would lead to “amnesty.� McCain and others dispute that characterization and McCain canceled a scheduled appearance at a Bilbray fundraiser last week, though he said he continued to support the Republican candidate.

Bilbray supports the harder-line House immigration bill, focused exclusively on enforcement, and has said he favors building a fence from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

That means on this issue Bilbray had many voters INCLINED to vote for him — but unsure if they would. MORE:

Late last week, Busby found herself doing damage control for a verbal blunder – telling a Spanish-speaker at a meeting of mostly Latinos that “You don’t need papers for voting.â€? Republicans seized on her comments, and she later said she flubbed her words and did not mean to advocate illegal immigrants voting, but that she wanted to say people not registered to vote could help her campaign.

By Monday, the GOP had launched a radio ad that said, “That’s right. Francine Busby says you don’t need papers to vote.â€?

That was truly the ball game.

One local poll showed that, after her remark, undecided and independent voters started breaking in a big way — for Brian Bilbray.

Remember: Bilbray was NOT an unknown quantity. And while many Democratic partisans opposed and disliked him because he was a Republican, Bilbray’s career in fact was built on his getting the votes from some folks who were not Republicans. He was not a hated political figure in San Diego County.

When Busby made her poor choice of words what happened? She confirmed the latent fears many in that district had about her (they had voted against her before) but about Democrats in general (they were on a different wavelength if they were seemingly encouraging illegals to vote for them).

Today, Republicans and conservative talk show hosts will be touting Bilbray’s win as PROOF that the Democrats probably won’t win Congress.

And Democrats will be analyzing the race, probably pointing to the whopping advantage Republicans had in spending.

Both are fallacious, politically inspired, and CYA explanations for what this race means and its lessons. Here are a few:

FOR REPUBLICANS: Even in a district where you had a disgraced candidate who apparently could not LIVE without tons of money, freebies from defense contractors and an antique toilet on which to sit, you won with a candidate who was NOT a classic Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity Republican and had some proven appeal with non-Republican voters. Yes, your immigration ads and the focus on immigration helped your candidate — but that might not have been enough if the Democratic candidate had not helped your candidate.

FOR DEMOCRATS: You simply can’t assume that voters are shocked and repelled by the behavior of a Republican whose biggest worry these days will be dropping the soap. You have several BIG lessons from this race:

  • Democrats cannot simply assume that being the anti-GOP or anti-Bush is going to be enough. Unless you want to only get Democratic votes you have to think through what it’s going to take to win over (a) swing voters (who can make a difference; they’re not called “swing voters” because they listen to ancient Benny Goodman recordings) (b) wavering Republicans who MIGHT take a deep breath and vote for you if you do not give ammunition to Republicans who will use it to paint you as a stereotype of a Democratic liberal.

  • Watch what you say and make sure you ONLY say things you would be proud to shout from a rooftop or on national TV. In these days of camcorders, tape recorders and the Internet if you say something that can even be CONSTRUED as something offensive to a group whose votes you need that you would NOT say in the middle of a televised debate, you’re history.
  • Don’t get caught up in thinking weblog readers, weblog writers and Air America Radio are going to win the election for you. A LOT of voters don’t spend time huddled over their computers and don’t know Kos from CostCo or InstaPundit from Instant Rice (or TMV from TB, although some would say the two are similar). We are now seeing a pattern in some of these races that Democrats hoped to win: for all of its hype, the Internet is NOT winning elections. It is NOT going to be enough to have the choir pitch in and work for you. You need to convince some SKEPTICAL members of the audience who might not like the choir to JOIN the choir and pitch in.

Did Brian Bilbray win because he had the right issues and the right campaign? To a certain extent. But Francine Busby helped him win by making the worst possible comment at the worst possbile time in the worst possible district.

Did the GOP in the Bilbray/Busby race prove talk about the Democrats possibly taking the house is all hype?

If that’s the GOP view, then in November it may be the Republicans’ turn to wake up and see some election results and wish they had done things differently.

If the race comes down to the GOP versus the anti-GOP, the Democrats will be disappointed in November. If the races come down to the GOP versus a party offering a clear alternative and also seeking out and embracing independent and disgruntled GOP voters by running campaigns offering specific ideas — and reassurances that Democrats do not fit stereotypes created by conservatives and by themselves — then Democrats could have a happy election morning after.

FOOTNOTE: Bilbray will have to start campaigning almost immediately for his November re-election. That allows Busby a rematch. Will Democrats give it to her?

CORRECTION: Captain Ed Morrissey emailed us to note that the above “Footnote” is actually wrong (we REGRET THE ERROR and we thank him for it):

The Democrats have *already* given Busby the rematch. She and Bilbray ran for the nomination in the separate primary race for this seat, in a separate ballot choice.

That gives her time to try to undo the last-minute damage her comments made to her campaign. But she will still have to look at the issue of getting cross-over votes. Democrats in this district (and throughout the country) will not win elections if they only get Democratic voters. Bilbray has a good chance of keeping his seat because he has an ability to get more than hardcore Republican voters.

Some Other Reaction:

Matt Stoller:

Brian Bilbray ran to the left of Francine Busby. I know it sounds weird, but he did. That he won on a progressive platform is biggest story of the night. Busby’s loss was a loss no matter how it’s spun, but it’s also a clear sign that the Democrats must become a progressive party. Busby ran the ultimate DC campaign, downplaying ideology and party, and making the campaign about competence, corruption, and issues. I don’t expect this to wake up DC insiders, but you never know….

…..The lesson from last night should be clear. Hiding from progressives and the left will lead to Democratic losses in 2006. Running as a progressive will lead to victory. Running on ‘issues’ and ‘competence’ instead of character will lead to Democratic losses. Talking about how the ‘American people’ care about gas prices and not gay marriage is insulting and loser politics. Running on bullet points is wrong. Running on character is right. Busby was no progressive, so she lost. She got the indy votes, but couldn’t turn out progressive voters and couldn’t keep in conservative voters.

Hugh Hewett:

Border security trumped “culture of corruption,” and my guess is that Michael Barone will conclude, as he did after Ohio’s primary, that the GOP base may not be happy, but they are smart and know the effects of a Democratic majority on the war on terror and the economy, and thus keep turning up. The incredible levels of venom on the left are also very off-putting to average voters, and the inability of the Democratic leadership to separate itself from the virulent strain of netroots have become a real handicap.

Democrats.com:

The Busby-Bilbray race was the one Washington insiders were watching most closely, looking for early signs of a Democratic tsunami in November in the wake of the Duke Cunningham scandal. Republicans spent a whopping $4.5 million to turn out 60,000 votes in a district that cast 170,000 votes for George Bush in 2004. Busby gained 18 points from her 22-point defeat in 2004. Still, Busby might have scored a huge upset if she had not carelessly accepted the help of undocumented volunteers at the very end of the campaign – an issue that was caught on tape and used by rightwing talk show hosts in the final days of the campaign to mobilize the rightwing base.

Ed Morrissey:

Even with Cunningham’s conviction of the worst kind of corruption, the Democrats could not poll more than 46% of the vote in this district with all of their national effort. Thanks to California gerrymandering, CA-50 appears shaken but not stirred.

However, it does show that in terms of ready popularity, Bilbray has no secure lock on this district. He has to run again in the November midterms to win a second term after this brief initial term as Representative. His opponent? Francine Busby, who sailed to her primary win against the Democrats in this unusual election. He has five months to improve his standing and make this a secure seat for the GOP again.

Firedog Lake: “I’m no expert in election strategy, believe me, but it seems to me Democrats need to walk away from the assumption that voter disgust with Republican incompetence and corruption is going to carry them to Congress.”

Political Scientist Steven Taylor: “Heck, it is a Republican district, surely this is the expected result. Everyone in the press, repeat after me: one event does not a trend make. If anything, can we stop calling these things “bellwethersâ€?? Please?”

–Kos has a detailed analysis. One of his points is that this election proves Democrats are not motivated to go out and vote. Kos’ conclusion is that more than ever 2006 will be a “base” election and that the danger is posed by Democrats who don’t focus on the base:

2006 will be a base election — the party that wins is the party that gets more pf its partisans to the polls. Busby worked hard to win the independent vote. And like Kerry in 2004, she probably won it. But it does no good when the other side gets more of its voters out to the polls. And a milquetoast campaign that hides partisan divisions and stresses “competence” will not inspire our partisans to come out and vote. The Republicans, on the other hand, made sure to rile up their base. Busby helped with her unfortunate comments that were so easily twisted out of context by the right wing noise machine, but they’ll do that to every single one of our candidates. And if a Democrat doesn’t provide the easy ammo, it doesn’t matter. They’ll simply make it up.

James Joyner:

Given the money spent, having the Republican barely hold a once-solid seat is an indication at the depths to which the Cunningham and Abramoff scandals have rocked the party. And this is after Busby shot herself in the foot with some ill-advised statements about immigration last week. Of course, nominating a congressman-turned-lobbyist to take the seat of a congressman forced from office after taking lobbyist bribes might not have been the ideal strategy from a GOP standpoint, either.

Glenn Reynolds (his updates included):

I tend to think that special elections are generally less important as barometers than punditry usually suggests. I suspect that will be the Democratic line today, too. . . .

UPDATE: A reader emails that this makes the Kos Krowd 0 for 20. I haven’t been counting — can this be right?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Mike Krempasky thinks that’s wrong, and it’s 0 for 19.

Hotline On Call: “While Busby’s “papers” comment will get a lot of blame, was there ever a chance she could top 45 percent? The trick the Dems needed was to make 45 a winning number. It’s possible the “papers” comment helped Bilbray rally conservatives.”

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