Well, maybe it wasn't so bad after all.
Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief after Brian Bilbray defeated Democrat Francine Busby in a special election in California's 50th Congressional District in San Diego.
The race, thought by virtually all observers to foretell the parties' national fortunes in November, was close until the end when Bilbray pulled away, in part on the strength of a gigantic gaffe: Busby's telling an audience, reportedly in response to a question by an undocumented man, that "you don't need papers for voting." (This in a region where all anyone talks about these days is illegal immigration).
Of course, in a district with a 3:2 Republican registration advantage, a Democratic victory seemed highly unlikely in any ordinary year.
Yet neither 2006 nor the district itself has been anything like ordinary. The president's and Congress's low approval rating was coupled with the recent bribery conviction of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to spell bad news for the GOP. The conventional wisdom was that even if Bilbray could hold on to the seat for the Republicans, the party would be in for a rude awakening later this year.
Indeed, this was the Democrats' reaction to Bilbray's 49.3%-45.5% victory on Tuesday night. They pointed out that the Republicans poured nearly $5 million into the district -- which, natch, they should have won handily -- and Busby still exceeded John Kerry's percentage in the district in 2004. One DCCC spokesman called the contest "one of the most unexpectedly competitive races in congressional history."
And yet the Republican won.
Contrary to the nervous glee on display among the Democratic leadership, consider the following:
Bilbray won despite having to emerge from a field of 18 candidates in the first round of the election, back in April. In that round, he narrowly edged out several conservatives and spent much of his time and money simply trying to attract attention from voters. Busby, by contrast, ran all-but-unopposed.
Bilbray also suffered from being perceived as a moderate in a conservative district; from (unfortunate) sniping from the conservatives he defeated; and from the Busby campaign's unprecedented ad-buy aimed at encouraging conservatives to vote for a third candidate even more hostile to illegal immigration than Bilbray (sort of a reverse triangulation, if that's geometrically possible). He still threaded the needle quite artfully.
While Busby's support inched upward from the April election from 43.7% to 45.5%, she actually lost nearly 5,000 votes in absolute numbers (her totals declined from over 60,000 to under 56,000. Fewer people voted in the run-off than in the first round. If indeed Busby galvanized voters to pull the Democratic lever, the peak of her galvanization was in April, not in June.
Furthermore, while Busby received only 36.5% of the vote when she ran against the Duke in 2004, she also received over 105,000 votes in that race: nearly twice what she earned two years later. Voter turnout is unquestionably lower in a special election -- indeed, it was in the low-30's this time around -- but it's hard to argue that you've energized new voters when you've in fact lost half of your supporters over the course of two years.
Finally, she improved on Kerry's total in the district by only 1.5%, hardly the mark of a changing political landscape.
True, the NRCC and Bilbray's campaign combined spent millions on the election. But the Democrats -- both at a national level and locally -- as well as Busby herself spent several million as well. These numbers don't include independent expenditures; Busby received significant support from MoveOn.org and the DailyKos family.
Busby as a candidate
Despite being derided for her lack of charisma, Busby actually proved a shrewd and effective candidate. She repeatedly and skillfully tainted Bilbray as a lobbyist (he spent several years on K Street pushing for immigration reform) and tying him to the "culture of corruption" epitomized by Cunningham. Her ads were hard-hitting and memorable (one involved a revolving-door for Washington lobbyists). And her public appearances were fairly impressive for a school-board member. She was an articulate exponent of the Democratic agenda -- at least until she suggested that illegal immigrants could vote, and even then she stanched the bleeding by repeatedly insisting that she had merely misspoken.
Actually, it really became one issue: illegal immigration. A turnaround moment perhaps even more significant than Busby's "papers" mishap came less than a week before the election when Senator John McCain pulled out of a fundraising appearance. Both McCain and Bilbray cited their differences over the border as the reason for the split; Bilbray has harshly criticized the Senate's proposal as an amnesty for illegals and he even chided the Vice President for the Administration's policy.
Bilbray himself points to this as a watershed, noting that "It was not until I was able to highlight the fact that I did not agree with my friends in the Senate or my friend in the White House on amnesty that you really began to see polls changing." At the same time, Busby wrapped herself in McCain's banner: in what seemed like a clever move at the time, she told the San Diego Union-Tribune that "I thought it would be great to have [McCain] talk about his comprehensive reform that I support, and see if Brian is offering any solutions."
Perhaps, then, the confluence of all of these events -- immigration, McCain's withdrawal, the gaffe -- did Busby in. Still, the other factors listed above cut heavily against Bilbray and rendered his victory somewhat surprising.
Bottom line: it's rather difficult to shift the baselines in any direction. Congressional districts have been drawn by the politicians themselves in an incumbent-maximizing manner, a backstop against the kind of fundamental changes not seen since 1994.
It's also clear that the Democrats' momentum has been checked in San Diego by such a backstop -- for now.
Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's IP columnist, is an attorney in San Diego. He was elected on Tuesday to the San Diego County Republican Party's Central Committee. The views expressed here are his own.