April 11 could be do-or-die for Francine Busby. The Democratic congressional
candidate appears to have a slim chance to win a majority in next week’s
special election to replace former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham. But she
would be a heavy underdog in a runoff as GOP voters unite around a single
Democrats now are looking to the special election as a potential bellwether.
If Busby pulls off an upset next week, it may be a harbinger of a rough
political season for congressional Republicans.
The race in San Diego’s 50th District has been watched closely because of
Cunningham, who resigned his seat after he was caught taking bribes from
lobbyists. Cunningham’s legal troubles, along with those of several other
San Diego-area Republicans in recent months, have Democrats thinking Busby
might be able to win the seat–even though Cunningham walloped her by a 62-
to 36-percent margin in 2004.
Last week, Busby announced she had raised $1.3 million. On Wednesday,
National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC)–which The Hill newspaper
reported received money from Cunningham after he had admitted taking
bribes–began running anti-Busby ads on San Diego-area TV stations.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has targeted the
50th, along with the 11th District seat occupied by powerful Rep. Richard
Pombo, R-Tracy, as longtime California GOP seats it believes the Democrats
“Is it winnable? Absolutely,” said Kate Bedingfield, California regional
spokeswoman for the DCCC, of the 50th.
Some of this newfound confidence comes from a SurveyUSA poll conducted in
late March that showed Busby with 45 percent support. The top-five
Republicans totaled only 46 percent. In other words, the Republicans appear
to be stuck near their registration number of 45 percent. Busby seems to
have surged far beyond the 30 percent Democratic registration and has made
major inroads with the district voters who identify themselves as
The poll also seems to define a four-way race, with the serious GOP
contenders being businessman Eric Roach (14 percent), former Assemblyman
Howard Kaloogian (12 percent) and former Congressman Brian Bilbray (10
percent). Once considered among the leaders, Sen. Bill Morrow, R-Oceanside,
and businessman Alan Uke polled only 5 percent each and appear to have
fallen back into a field of nine other Republicans.
Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Bilbray, said he’s not buying Busby’s
numbers. The SurveyUSA poll relied on random-digit dialing, he said, and
ended up with a sample that underrepresented Republicans and misrepresented the makeup of the district. He believes she will lose a runoff against one of the top-three Republicans.
“No one questions that she is going to be the top vote getter [in the
primary],” Bardella said. “Francine is getting more or less a free ride
right now. No one is focused on her.”
Bardella pointed to a Lake Research poll, paid for by the Busby campaign, which he said is more accurate because it was limited to “likely voters. Conducted March 18-20, it showed Busby with 37 percent, Bilbray at 15 percent, and Kaloogian and Roach stuck at 7 percent.
A Datamar poll, also from late March and reliant on random-digit dialing, showed Busby with a familiar 36 percent. Bilbray, Kaloogian and Roach were in a statistical dead heat, each with around 11 percent of the vote, with no other Republican coming close.
However, University of California, Irvine, political scientist Lisa Garcia
Bedolla said Busby might be benefiting as district voters trend more
independent and Latino.
“The demographics are changing,” Garcia Bedolla said. “Sometimes that is
more relevant than people think.”
Busby campaign spokesman Brennan Bilberry defended the Survey USA poll,
saying that Republicans were underrepresented by only two points. This would
more than offset by a six percent underrepresentation of female voters, he
said, who would be likely to vote for a female Democrat. He also rejected
the idea that Busby’s only chance was to win a majority on the first ballot.
“After April 11 there will be an even clearer contrast between Francine and
the business-as-usual politicians on the other side.”
While Busby faces a field crowded with experienced and well-funded
candidates, she sounds like she’s running against Cunningham. Her ads show
graphics representing the cash and gifts he received, rail against a
“culture of corruption,” and proclaim, “No gifts, no perks, no exceptions.”
But she also identifies herself with the reform efforts of Senator John
McCain, R-Arizona, and says, “It’s not about Republicans versus Democrats.”
Of course, none of her opponents provides nearly so fat a target as
Cunningham. Kaloogian did himself no favors last week when he put a picture
of a street corner in Istanbul, Turkey, on his Web site but claimed it was a
peaceful scene in Baghdad. While the story became a minor national
embarrassment and earned him criticism from some in the GOP, his campaign
quickly issued a statement claiming the incident was an honest mistake.
Some of Bilbray’s critics have tried to make an issue of his connections to
Metabolife. Bilbray spoke on behalf of the San Diego-based supplement maker,
who got in trouble after their ephedra-based herbals stimulants were
revealed to cause health problems, but attacks do not seem to have stuck.
His immigration stance is similar to those of his Republican opponents,
though a contentious House debate may have changed the dynamics of the
locally popular issue. Moderate Republicans in the district also may oppose
Bilbray for championing the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton;
Bilbray said that the issue cost him his seat in the neighboring 49th
District in 2000.
But it is looking increasingly possible that Busby could end up in a runoff
with Roach, who has no political past to attack. He founded the trading firm
Lombard Brokerage in 1992 and sold it to Dean Witter five years later. This
wealth allowed him to announce a late-starting campaign and quickly gain
traction with voters. Roach’s communications director, Stan Devereux, said
that Roach launched a “shock and awe” advertising campaign on February 5
with multiple radio and TV spots, which in turn led many to accuse him of
trying to “buy the race.” But Devereux added that he believes the
42-year-old Roach’s appeal goes far beyond his war chest.
Devereux also said that Roach already was targeting Busby. For instance, he
has sought to challenge her “moderate” reputation by pointing out that she
has taken money from liberal “Bay-Area Democrats,” such as the $2,000 from
Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Last week, Roach issued a statement challenging Busby to
join him in a pledge to accept no money or junkets from PACs or from groups
or individuals who have themselves taken PAC money.
“You have four millionaires in the race and he’s the only one who has really
gotten traction,” Devereux said. “Voters believe it was time for someone to
enter the race who was an outsider and not beholden to special interests.”