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June 7, 2006
CA-50 Race Too Close To Call (Update & Bump)

The polls have closed in California's primary election, and the most significant contest looks like a real squeaker. With only 11% of precincts reporting, Republican Brian Bilbray leads Democrat Francine Busby by eight points in the race to replace the disgraced Randy "Duke" Cunningham. The early absentee returns should have given Bilbray a better lead at this stage; this one will probably go to the wire. I'll update this in the morning.

UPDATE: Bilbray won, but shy of a majority:

Republican Brian Bilbray beat Democrat Francine Busby early Wednesday in a close race to replace imprisoned former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham in the 50th Congressional District, a contest seen as a gauge of voter attitudes for the national midterm elections. ...

Bilbray also said that running in a heavily Republican district was an advantage, to a degree. “It can also be a big negative, because people were really hurt by Mr. Cunningham. But it was one man's mistake, and we have to remember that,” he said.

Clearly, not everyone in CA-50 agrees with that sentiment. In the Duke's last election, he garnered almost two-thirds of the vote, continuing a run of easy elections in the district for the GOP. North San Diego trends conservative in almost every manner possible, but in this special election, Bilbray won by a mere four percentage points and could not quite claim a majority (49.49% - 45.24% with 90.2% of precincts reporting at 1:35 AM PT).

Did this signal a weakness in the overall Republican position for the midterms? The Democrats will claim it does, but it appears more analogous to the race lost by Paul Hackett in a similar special election in Ohio. Hackett didn't do quite as well as Busby but made it interesting in what normally is a solid GOP district. One has to remember that the Democrats could afford to focus national resources in this one-off situation that would not be possible in November, when they have to contest 434 more House seats (plus 33 in the Senate). With the previous winner serving time for corruption, it would be expected that the incumbent party would have difficulty convincing the district to turn out in great numbers -- and indeed, turnout remained low throughout the state for this primary election, which in this district would hurt Bilbray.

None of this supports the contention that this was a "message" race at all. Even with Cunningham's conviction of the worst kind of corruption, the Democrats could not poll more than 46% of the vote in this district with all of their national effort. Thanks to California gerrymandering, CA-50 appears shaken but not stirred.

However, it does show that in terms of ready popularity, Bilbray has no secure lock on this district. He has to run again in the November midterms to win a second term after this brief initial term as Representative. His opponent? Francine Busby, who sailed to her primary win against the Democrats in this unusual election. He has five months to improve his standing and make this a secure seat for the GOP again.

UPDATE: Dafydd called this one almost exactly correct, except I don't think he anticipated Bilbray not winning a majority. More thoughts at Power Line.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 7, 2006 4:25 AM

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