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ENCINITAS, Calif. — Considering Democrat Francine Busby garnered fewer votes than the combined total of the 14 Republicans who
ran in California’s 50th district special election primary, and that her national party may be reluctant to
commit significant resources to her next fight, she could face a tall
order in her quest to win the June 6 runoff.
Busby was nonetheless confident and optimistic last week while discussing her chances against former Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) in the race to replace disgraced former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R) in the heavily Republican northern San Diego County district.
But her strategy — predicated on the notion that the Cunningham scandal has left Republicans demoralized enough to swing voter turnout in Democrats’ favor and that ethics reform is the No. 1 issue voters want addressed — was not necessarily born out by last Tuesday’s returns.
“My support is not just coming from Democrats,” Busby maintained Tuesday in an interview in her hometown of Cardiff, a seaside hamlet just north of San Diego, where she serves on the school board. “It’s coming from Republicans, it’s coming from decline-to-state, independent voters. This is the first time [voters] are having an opportunity to really have a referendum, or voice or a vote about the direction of the country.
“I think it’s competitive because of that; I think the dynamics have changed.”
According to sources, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is unlikely to lend her the kind of support it did in Tuesday’s open primary contest. The committee spent $225,000 on television ads and phone banking for Busby in advance of that election, which could have seen her avoid a runoff had she won more than 50 percent of the vote.
The DCCC, sources say, was not disappointed in her showing or the campaign she ran. But its analysis of the primary — in which Busby finished a strong first in a field of 21 candidates with 44 percent of the vote — has led the DCCC to believe she faces a serious uphill climb in June and that any resources it would spend on her would not be decisive in putting her over the top.
The committee believes its resources would be better spent on a host of other House races shaping up as competitive this November. Busby appeared resigned to this fact last Tuesday even before the ballots were counted.
“I expect the Democratic Party to be very judicious in choosing the races that they can and will invest in, because that’s really what their job is to do,” she said.
EMILY’s List, however, is sounding more optimistic. The powerhouse fundraising group which backs Democratic women who favor abortion rights sent out an e-mail fundraising appeal after Busby won the open primary pronouncing her victory one that “exceeded expectation,” and imploring its donors to contribute to give the Democrat a chance to compete on equal footing with Bilbray.
“While Republicans are on the defensive, Democrats across the country are building momentum at the prospect of a Busby victory in June,” the e-mail said. “EMILY’s List will be behind efforts to win this House seat every step of the way.”
Additionally, some Democrats following California’s Democratic gubernatorial primary predict San Diego County could turn into a battleground for votes between Phil Angelides, the state treasurer, and Steve Westly, the state controller, as the county has the state’s second largest population of Democrats next to Los Angeles County. If that happens, voter turnout among Democrats could be driven up and help Busby, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is not facing a similar primary challenge that would similarly motivate Republican voters.
Bilbray, the top GOP finisher, scored only 15.3 percent of the vote. But the combined number of votes secured by the 14 Republicans who ran equaled 53.5 percent.
Despite the notion that ethics reform is the No. 1 issue voters in the 50th district care about after the Cunningham scandal, Bilbray ran primarily on enforcing the nearby southern border with Mexico and curtailing illegal immigration. He barely edged out Eric Roach (R), a multimillioinaire entrepreneur who had garnered 14.5 percent of the vote. Although there were still some 1,000 absentee and provisional ballots to be counted at press time, Roach conceded the spot in the runoff to Bilbray on Friday.
Roach also took a tough line against illegal immigration. But he centered his campaign around restoring honesty to government, vowing not to take money from political action committees or participate in lobbyist-sponsored junkets — ever.
Bilbray, a moderate who served in Congress for eight years before being ousted in 2000 by Rep. Susan Davis (D) in a neighboring district and has been working as a lobbyist ever since, beat Roach despite being outspent 5-1 by the conservative political newcomer. Roach used much of his millions making sure voters knew Bilbray has been working as a lobbyist since leaving office.
Dave Gilliard, Bilbray’s chief political consultant, said attempting to tie the former Congressman to Cunningham and the other scandals brewing around Republicans in Washington, D.C. is a losing strategy. “Guilt by association almost never works,” Gilliard said, “especially because [Bilbray] is so well known.”
Bilbray offered his own assessment of Capitol Hill’s ethics problems in explaining why he doesn’t think his tenure as a lobbyist, including work for a group opposed to illegal immigration, would cost him the runoff.
“We have an ethics problem out in Washington right now [with lawmakers] looking the other way with 11 million illegal aliens demonstrating in the street. The biggest ethics question is: Will you give amnesty and reward people for breaking our laws?” Bilbray said during an interview the day after the election at a deli in the coastal community of Del Mar.
Bilbray wholeheartedly supports the immigration bill passed by the House, and Democrats believe Busby’s support for the reform plan being pushed by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) could be a liability in the the June 6 runoff. The Kennedy-McCain blueprint includes a guest-worker component, labeled by many supporters of the House bill as “amnesty.”
Roach and other leading Republicans in the open primary took a hard line on illegal immigration. But Bilbray in particular has been well-known in San Diego for years as a staunch opponent of unlawful border crossings by Mexican nationals, and he believes the millions of Latinos who marched in cities across the country in recent weeks to protest the House bill and certain proposals being bandied about in the Senate pushed more voters into his camp on Election Day.
Capitol Hill Republicans are essentially united behind Bilbray, with Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) leading his California 50 Victory Fund fundraising committee in Washington, D.C., and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier and Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce, all California Republicans, playing key roles in his battle with Busby. Bilbray had barely half a million dollars to spend in the open primary, dispensing of all but $10,000 of it, but Gilliard said money will not be an issue in the runoff.
At this point, Bilbray’s biggest obstacle could be some of his fellow Republicans in the 50th district.
Although Roach conceded the open primary race to Bilbray on Thursday, his campaign spokesman Stan Devereux said that the self-funding candidate hasn’t ruled out running against Bilbray in the regular June 6 primary.
“He conceded the April 11 outcome, and now he is planning to take some time to get some R and R this weekend, and over the course of the coming week or two look at what the future holds for him,” Devereux said. “He does not want to be rushed into making any quick decisions right now.”
Because of the timing of the open primary, any Republican who wanted to be eligible to represent the GOP on the November general-election ballot had to file to run in the regular statewide June 6 primary. So, the Republicans who lost last week have the option of continuing their campaign and running for that nomination.
Theoretically, Roach or the third-place Republican finisher, former state Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, could choose to run against Bilbray for the Republican nomination to the November general election — a move that could drag down his numbers and cost him the June election against Busby, or turn him into a six-month Congressman even if he wins the runoff.
Neither Issa, nor Kaloogian strategist Sal Russo, see such a scenario as likely,
“I think there’s a very clear understanding that unless somebody wants to come in and give Busby a win, and that’s not going to be a Republican-supported initiative, it’s going to be down to whoever the nominee is” in the runoff, Issa said.