I have been saying all along (contrary to much mainstream punditry) that the Democratic candidate for California’s 50th House district, Francine Busby, stood a better chance of winning in the runoff in June that in the first round that took place on 11 April.
I have also said she had little chance in either round. With her surprising 44%–about ten points better than pre-election polls–have her chances improved?
Yes. It is still a longshot, but the apparent nomination of a former congressman, Brian Bilbray, (from a different, and only partly overlapping district, who was defeated in 2000 by Susan Davis in the since re-districted 53rd) gives her a chance.1
Assuming Busby faces Bilbray, she can run against the ex-congressman who cashed in as a lobbyist,2 thereby boosting her first-round campaign theme of the “culture of corruption.” As I noted yesterday, Bilbray is a relative moderate within the local Republican party–he had to be, because his old district was one of those increasingly rare competitive types–but his being a lobbyist may be more relevant today than a six-year-old voting record.3
Obviously, the key to Bilbray’s beating Busby is to unite the divided Republican forces–even mainstream pundits get that! Their fourteen candidates combined for 53.3% of the vote. Busby and one other Democrat combined for 45.2%. There is a danger sign in these numbers for Republicans: Even with numerous candidates appealing to various segments of the party, they underperformed Bush’s vote in the district in 2004, which was 55%.
Busby is not a first-time candidate, so we have a good comparison to the previous election. In 2004, she ran against then-incumbent Duke Cunningham (first elected in this district in 1992)4, and lost 36-58, in what was the first serious and well organized campaign by a Democrat I had seen in thirteen years of living in this region. (By contrast, a different Democratic candidate had lost, 32-64, to Cunningham in 2002.) Obviously, a district that split between the Democrats and Republicans, 45-53, this week is “in play” for the first time ever. But is this the best Busby can do? Maybe not.
A key factor–unkown, unless there were exit polls of which I am unaware–is how much cross-party voting there was in the first round. Obviously, Busby has already won over some independents and probably even some Republicans. Democrats represent only about 30% of the district’s registration, against 45% Republican and around 22% nonpartisan. Thus Busby outpolled her party by around 14 percentage points. Has she fully fished the pool of cross-party voters? If so, she will lose roughly 53-45.
What is unknown is how many Democrats and independents might have voted for a Republican other than the one nominated, and whether any of them would prefer Busby over the actual nominee now that their first choice from the field is eliminated.
And then there is the wildcard of the concurrent primary-runoff in June. Not only will Busby and Bilbray face off in June, but on the same day there will also be the closed party primaries to pick the candidates for the regular November general election. Bilbray won around 28% of the total votes cast for Republicans in the first round (which, rememeber, was 53% of the total and may have included some Democrats who will not be eligible to vote in the closed party primary in June, although independents may still do so). It is hardly a stretch to think that Bilbray might face challengers from within the party for the nomination to face (presumably) Busby in November. If there is at least one Republican challenging him in the June primary, he may lose votes (perhaps to absentention) in the concurrent runoff for the remainder of Duke’s unexpired term.
It is still an uphill battle for Busby, and even if she wins in June, she may face a stronger Republican challenger than Bilbray in November and lose then.
But her prospects look a lot better today than they looked a few days ago. And even a loss but with a mid-40s showing in June could be a significant harbinger of winds of change come November.
UPDATE, 14 April: Bilbray apparently has clinched.
With only about 1,000 absentee and provisional ballots to be counted, Bilbray’s lead for the Republican runoff slot has widened slightly (to 0.77%), and his lead over Roach is greater than 1,000 votes.
FURTHER UPDATE: As of the end of the day Friday, 14 April, around 500 ballots remained to be counted and the top three percentages stand at 43.75, 15.26, 14.50.
Notes & sources
1. The nomination of Brian Bilbray is not yet assured (as of the original posting, which will be updated at the bottom of the main text–i.e. just above these footnotes). About 10,000 absentee and provisional ballots remain to be counted, and Bilbray’s lead over Eric Roach is under 9% of that remaining total. Roach could overtake Bilbray, and even if he does not, if Bilbray’s lead narrows by about 250 votes, a recount would be likely. The remainder of this entry will assume that the Republican candidate will be Bilbray. If, on the other hand, Roach wins the nomination, he might be harder to defeat. He is a millionaire who could spend freely while perhaps neutralizing some of the “culture of corruption” message through his declared refusal to accept donations from political action committees (PACs).
2. The organization for which Bilbray has been working advocates stricter immigration controls. Given the salience, but also the volatility, of that issue right now, it is unclear to me whether this actually will turn out to be an asset or a further liability.
3. According to the 2006 edition of Michael Barone and Richard E. Cohen’s The Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), p. 311, in defeating Bilbray in 2000, Susan Davis “portrayed him as a conservative, even though he took liberal positions on abortion and the environment and made a point of not attending the Republican National Convention. He supported John McCain’s campaign finance regulation bill…”
4. Cunningham was first elected in 1990, with only 46% of the vote, in a different district in which he knocked off an incumbent Democrat (Jim Bates). He challenged incumbent Republican Bill Lowery in the primary in his new district in 1992. Lowery, implicated in the House banking scandal, withdrew, and Cunningham won 56% of the vote in November of that year and 67% in 1994. (Almanac of American Politics, p. 302.)
For further details, see the special coverage in the local paper. Ironically, this linked page comes up with a page title indicating it contains “obituaries!” Could they be referring to the death of a once safe Republican district? Or would such reports be greatly exaggerated?