For national Republicans, the special election to fill Duke Cunningham’s seat was an early check of barometric pressure. A loss would have been a sign of an approaching hurricane.
But Brian Bilbray won by a respectable margin. The pressure is stable and the skies are clear–for now.
In a couple of ways, the outcome was quite remarkable. As of the last FEC report, Busby had raised more money than Bilbray. And the presence of minor candidates threatened to drain crucial support from Bilbray. Accordingly, Busby made a unique and brazen move. She ran ads on talk radio stations urging conservatives to vote for independent William Griffith, who had the support of the Minutemen. The ads may have had some effect. In the preliminary count, Griffith got nearly 4 percent.
So how did Bilbray win?
First and most obviously, it’s a GOP district. As of May, Republicans led Democrats in voter registration, 44-30 percent. After the 2000 census, Democrats and Republicans agreed to a redistricting deal in which Democrats would get a majority of seats, and Republicans would get electoral safety. The deal is still working.
Second, Busby was hoping that a tight race for her party’s gubernatorial nomination would draw droves of Democrats to the polls. Instead, the Angelides-Westly slimefest was a voter repellant. Only about a third of the district’s registered voters cast a ballot.
Third, Bilbray was a quality candidate. He may have suffered from his recent work as a lobbyist (not a highly respected calling these days), and his difficulty in rallying the conservative base. But he was also an experienced campaigner, having served three terms representing another district in the House. He knew the area well enough to understand the power of the immigration issue, and he emphasized his opposition to amnesty.
Fourth, Busby made a crucial error in the last days of the campaign. In response to a question from someone who admitted that he didn’t have “papers” (apparently an illegal alien), she said: “You don’t need papers for voting. You don’t need to be a registered voter to help.” She later tried to claim that she was merely talking about people under the age of 18, but it seemed that she was inviting illegals to take part in politics. Such a comment would be damaging anywhere, but it was radioactive in a district so close to the Mexican border.
Supporters of the House immigration bill will claim vindication. John McCain pulled out of a Bilbray fundraiser, citing differences over the issue. This move may have helped Bilbray by helping him stay on message. Few Republicans will read the result as a sign that they should follow McCain’s lead.
A Busby win would have prompted political-action committees to pump up Democratic contributions, in hopes of making nice with the presumptive majority. That money would have made Democratic victory even more likely. Because of the outcome in California, the money flow won’t be quite as great.
Once the Republicans congratulate their newest member, however, they should get back to worrying. Had Busby been more prudent in her choice of words, she might have won. Republicans shouldn’t count on their foes to keep making such mistakes.
Democrats only need 15 seats to win a majority. Most recent polls show them with a double-digit lead in the generic congressional vote. Granted, these data are a doubtful guide to an election that is still months away. And incumbents are adept at saving themselves even when their party is foundering in a storm. But together with ominous economic news, the numbers suggest the potential for deep trouble.
While Republican skies are sunny this morning, clouds lurk over the horizon.
–John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.