All politics are local – except when they’re not.
This might as well be the slogan of Tuesday’s free-for-all special election to fill the San Diego-area seat of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham who in early March was sentenced to 100 months in federal prison for receiving an estimated $2.4 million in bribes.
The race for California’s 50th Congressional district has naturally centered around the hot-button issue of political corruption. So it’s not surprising that 2006’s first congressional campaign has been identified by national pundits on both sides of the aisle as a bellwether for GOP fortunes in November: if this conservative district – Republicans hold a 45-30 registration edge – falls to the Democrats, 2006 could prove a gloomy year for the GOP nationally.
Of course, it’s at least a bit unfair to place so much emphasis on a single local race. Bribery – whether tacit or explicit – is an infection that has spread to both parties and of which the Duke’s particular strain is only the most virulent.
In addition, there are several important factors at play in this campaign absent from upcoming nationwide races. Because the winner of this special election will fill Cunningham’s seat only until November, the field is more wide-open than San Diego Bay (or Howard Dean’s mouth; choose your own metaphor): no fewer than 18 candidates are running in this primary-free affair. If no single candidate captures a majority of votes on April 11, the top vote-getter from each party will proceed to a June runoff – an election that, in complicated turn, coincides with the parties’ primaries for the full-term November election.
Of the 18 candidates, two are Democrats, only one of which – local school board member Francine Busby – commands significant support. Busby was recruited for a long-shot run against the Duke in 2004 where she sustained a 58%-37% drubbing. Now in the right place at the right time, she has capitalized on voter disaffection and currently leads the pack, according to recent polls. Busby has quickly become a darling of the lefty blogosphere – drawing financial and political nourishment from its netroots – despite depicting herself as a tough-on-immigration, pro-military, anti-port-deal moderate (her TV spots don’t mention the word “Democrat”).
Among the Republicans, the best-known candidates – and the ones originally expected to vie for the right to confront Busby in June – were, in alphabetical order, former congressman Brian Bilbray (a moderate), former state assemblyman Howard Kaloogian (a conservative), and current state senator Bill Morrow (another conservative).
The rest of the field ranges far and wide, including self-financed businessmen like Eric Roach, former San Diego Charger defensive back and current pastor Scott Turner (who told me that while he’s concerned about the lack of “integrity and discipline” evinced by steroid-using athletes, he finds it “kind of strange that Congress would get involved”), a retired judge, a former mayor, and law enforcement officials and veterans. The several candidate forums and debates were crowded but civil affairs.
As the election has neared, however, a few surprises have emerged. First and foremost, recent surveys have pegged Busby’s support at anywhere from 36 to 45%. There is a nagging fear among local Republicans that she could capture the seat outright on Tuesday.
Second, while two of the three main Republican candidates – Bilbray and Kaloogian – have fared well, Morrow’s bid has faltered, if the polls are to be believed (given the range of candidates and the typically low interest greeting a special election, there’s reason to doubt their accuracy).
And Roach, who has reportedly spent $1.2 million on ubiquitous radio and TV ads and posters, is at or near the head of the pack. While Bilbray – who came to Congress as a Class-of-’94 freshman and lost his seat in 2000 to redistricting – and Kaloogian – who helped spearhead the Recall Gray Davis campaign – each have their admirers and detractors, they are both relatively known quantities. Roach, who has pledged to reject all contributions from lobbyists or PACs, is an uncertain bet to beat Busby in a runoff.
Third, some party loyalists have stirred up intra-Republican strife. Roach has caught flack for a former business associate now reportedly in prison for pedophilia. Then the California Republican Assembly, an independent conservative organization, sponsored a mailer attacking Bilbray that was linked by media reports to one or more of the candidates (who, in turn, deny they had anything to do with them).
Bilbray in particular has come under fire for his role as a Washington lobbyist. Although the former congressman’s most significant client was the Federation for American Immigration Reform, opponents have sought to tie him to Jack Abramoff and other unsavory types.
And at a recent candidates forum I attended, Kaloogian began to rattle off a list of prominent conservatives who had endorsed him. When the former assemblyman noted that one William F. Buckley contributed to his campaign, a table of Bilbray devotees muttered and hissed. Apparently, President (and Governor) Reagan’s famous 11th commandment – Thou shalt not criticize a fellow Republican – isn’t being fully heeded.
All this, of course, is largely to be expected in a hard-fought campaign, especially when candidates need to take risks to set themselves apart from such a large pack. Most likely, once a Republican emerges from the special, his erstwhile competitors will join forces. Nevertheless, the San Diego GOP must continue to work overtime to unify the party behind the candidate, looking forward to the runoff.
Local exigencies aside, there are distinct implications here for the national party. The issues central to this election include illegal immigration; monitoring sexual predators (Morrow announced his support for chemical castration); President Bush’s approach to illegal immigration; supporting the troops and their mission; oh, and the recent protests that swept Southern California over illegal immigration.
Corruption and lobbying are also at the forefront of every discussion here, as they will likely be in November if liberals succeed in frame the issue appropriately in the media. Over the next seven months, Democrats – foremost among them Busby – are expected to intone the mantra of “Cunningham-Abramoff-DeLay-culture-of-corruption” ad nauseum. The DCCC has backed Busby while the NRCC has sponsored ad spots questioning her own ethical bona fides.
Here in San Diego, turnout for the special is expected to be extraordinarily low – around 20-25% – which, in this case, tends to favor Busby: the few who are motivated enough to hit the ballot boxes in April are likely to be disproportionately those who are most disgusted with Cunningham’s conduct who, in turn, are incommensurately Democrats.
So indeed there’s cause for concern among Republicans in San Diego – and across the country. More pressingly, the party must band together and keep its eyes on the prize. Tune in on Tuesday for more details.
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney in San Diego. He is also a candidate for the Republican Party of San Diego County’s Central Committee. The views expressed are his own.
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