In California, sigh of relief for GOP

Bilbray won Tuesday's House race, but analysts say Democrats still feel confident about making gains this fall.

Republicans are heaving a sigh of relief following Brian Bilbray's victory in the special election to fill the seat of imprisoned ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California.

If Mr. Bilbray's Democratic opponent, Francine Busby, had won in the solidly Republican San Diego district, this story would be on the front page - and giddy Democrats would be predicting certain takeover of one or both houses of Congress in November.

Conditions are still ripe for Democratic gains in the fall midterms: low job approval for President Bush and the Republican-led Congress, and strong public feeling that the nation is on the wrong track, as the Iraq war grinds on and unease over the economy continues. The roster of competitive House races has expanded in recent weeks to more than 40, still small for a 435-seat body, but enough to close the 15-seat margin of GOP control, according to nonpartisan political handicappers.

But the Democrats failed to get the positive jolt they were looking for Tuesday. "National Democrats did not discover their shock wave in San Diego," said Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), in a statement Wednesday.

Still, say political analysts, Bilbray's five-point victory should give Republicans pause. "In a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats 3 to 2, to win by that small a margin suggests there are a lot of unhappy stay-at-home Republicans," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. "That augurs poorly for elections around the country where the expected margins of victory are much narrower."

The GOP pulled out all the stops to win what would normally be an easy victory. The NRCC spent $5 million on the race. Republican volunteers - including about 100 Capitol Hill staffers who flew in from Washington - made phone calls and knocked on doors to make sure Republicans turned out to vote. The Democratic campaign committee spent about $1.9 million; Busby's campaign says it had about 500 volunteers on the ground, most of them from the district.

With her base of support at about 45 percent in the district, Ms. Busby was counting on low Republican turnout and a siphoning of Bilbray support to the two independent candidates in the race to eke out a plurality victory. She won her 45 percent, but Bilbray bested her with 49.5 percent.

The biggest issue in the race was immigration - the district sits 30 miles from the Mexican border - and a recent Busby gaffe may have hurt her chances. According to news reports, when Busby was asked by a Spanish-speaker who said he lacked voting papers how he could help her campaign, she replied: "Everybody can help. You can all help. You don't need papers for voting, you don't need to be a registered voter to help."

Busby later said she misspoke, but the comment remained a gift to Bilbray, who accused her of supporting illegal immigrants. Since leaving Congress, Bilbray has worked on behalf of an anti-immigration group.

Still, Bilbray, who served in Congress before (1995-2001), entered the race with an image as a moderate Republican, and faced opposition from more conservative candidates. Tuesday's ballot also included the primary for the fall election, so even as the GOP sought to hold onto the seat in the special election, some Republicans backed the more-conservative alternative in the primary, a situation that could have hurt Bilbray.

Bilbray's title of "lobbyist" after leaving Congress also could have hurt him in a political atmosphere clouded by recent scandals involving lobbyists, including ex-Congressman Cunningham's own guilty plea to charges of corruption. But the Democrats' slogan "culture of corruption" has been diluted by scandals involving Democrats, and polls show the public taking a "pox on both parties" view toward corruption.

Republicans argue that the Bilbray victory shows that voters still view elections locally, even as the Democrats seek to nationalize the fall campaign.

For Democrats, one consolation in defeat was that Busby forced the GOP to spend millions of dollars to keep control of a usually safe Republican seat.

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