Surf’s Up!

Democrat Hopes to Catch Wave Against Ex-Surfer Bilbray

Posted September 16, 2008 at 6:38pm

Two and a half years after California’s 50th district was the center of the political universe, Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) appears well-positioned to glide to his second re-election victory — this time against upstart Democratic attorney Nick Leibham.

The Leibham campaign is poised to ratchet up the heat on Bilbray down the stretch, with a scheduled Saturday fundraiser featuring former Vice President Al Gore that it expects will bring in $300,000. The money will help fund a television ad campaign set to begin the first week of October.

But after Leibham failed last week to be promoted from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Emerging Races” list to its “Red to Blue” fundraising and infrastructure program along with other long-shot Democratic challengers, the Bilbray campaign felt as though its consistent confidence in the Congressman’s 2008 prospects was validated.

“I will give Leibham credit for his tenacity. He’s handsome enough and can articulate typical liberal rhetoric fairly well,” said Jennifer Jacobs, Bilbray’s chief campaign strategist.

The 34-year-old first-time candidate is looking to flip a district with a 40,000 GOP voter-enrollment edge that will be difficult to overcome.

Bilbray first won the solidly Republican, northern San Diego County seat in a contentious and expensive June 2006 special election that served as the first salvo in a midterm year that saw Democrats fail to win this district but succeed in taking back Congress.

The 50th district opened after former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R) resigned his seat in December 2005 amid a bribery scandal that sent him to prison.

Leibham campaign spokesman Alec Evans contends that the issue that carried Bilbray to victory in his three 2006 elections, illegal immigration, is no longer the issue of greatest concern to the district’s voters. And Evans dismissed Leibham’s failure to make Red to Blue — there are now 54 Democratic challengers participating in the program — saying it has nothing to do with any lack of confidence by the DCCC.

“You’ve got to have a million dollars raised to make the list, and we will very soon,” Evans said.

Bilbray closed the second quarter with $528,000 in cash on hand; Leibham finished the period with $267,000 on hand and $42,000 in campaign debt. Third-quarter numbers are due next month.

Bilbray, who had previously served in Congress from 1995 to 2001 in an old, neighboring district, had to win three campaigns in 2006 to secure a spot in the 110th Congress. Bilbray was the top Republican in a crowded April 2006 special open primary, advancing to the June 2006 special election against Democratic educator Francine Busby.

Bilbray defeated Busby by 5 points in that contest on the strength of his hard-line stance against illegal immigration, despite the role lobbyists played in the Cunningham bribery scandal and the fact that he had worked as a lobbyist after leaving Congress in 2001. Bilbray then proceeded to beat Busby again in the regular November election, this time by 10 points.

Republican operatives both in Washington, D.C., and California have at times questioned Bilbray’s work ethic on the campaign trail. But according to some GOP insiders who know him, what appears as a disdain for politics is in actuality a preference for legislating and serving his constituents.

“Brian’s success as a politician in San Diego is predicated on the fact he doesn’t care about insider-baseball politics,” said one Republican operative familiar with the Congressman’s career. “He doesn’t spend every moment on the phone raising money. His attention is on his district.”

The Leibham campaign argues that the 40,000 GOP voter-registration advantage is misleading. Evans, Leibham’s campaign spokesman, expects Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to win the presidential contest in the 50th district, but he said that is good for his candidate, because Leibham appeals to independent voters the way McCain does.

Leibham said Bilbray is politically vulnerable for accepting campaign contributions from oil companies and because of his floor votes on legislation affecting military veterans. If the DCCC ever decides to get involved in this race, that appears to be the line of attack it will employ.

“After accepting more than $180,000 from oil and gas companies, Congressman Brian Bilbray voted for billions in subsidies to oil companies making record profits,” DCCC spokesman Yoni Cohen said. “Far out of touch with California families, Bilbray even voted against educational benefits for veterans.”

The Bilbray campaign seems relatively unconcerned with Leibham, comfortable with the relationship the Congressman has established with his constituents since winning this seat in 2006 and confident that the Republican nature of the district will hold up on Nov. 4, particularly because this is a presidential year.

According to the Bilbray campaign, the Congressman since 2006 has provided first-rate constituent services, worked closely with local elected officials — and, yes, continued his strong opposition to illegal immigration.

Bilbray is chairman of the bipartisan House Immigration Reform Caucus, and his team cites his work on this front as central to his popularity at home.

But Bilbray is not taking the race lightly, having already bought television and radio time for the last five weeks of the campaign at a cost of at least $1 million. Direct mail is also in the mix.

“I would offer Leibham the following free advice: Once he has had a job for at least the length of a term in Congress and lives somewhere other than one of the most conservative-leaning areas in the country he might make a good candidate for the Democratic Party,” Jacobs said.