The Republicans Breathe a Sigh of Relief

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50th District Congressman Brian Bilbray

That sound you heard on Wednesday morning was a big sigh of relief from Republicans across the country over the results of a special election in a San Diego County congressional district where Republicans usually win without breaking a sweat. After ex-Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham earlier this year pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion, and was given an eight-year prison sentence, the election to name his replacement was watched by both parties as both a crucial test of how badly Republicans are likely to fare in this fall's midterms — and of whether the Democrats' recent "culture of corruption" line of attack on Republicans was getting much traction outside the Beltway.

So when Republican Brian Bilbray — who, as both a former Congressman and a lobbyist, held the two least popular credentials imaginable in 2006 — won by a surprisingly comfortable four-point margin over Democrat Francine Busby, a local school board member, his party was quick to exult. "National Democrats did not discover their shock wave in San Diego," National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds, who runs the House election effort for the GOP, said in a statement that landed in the e-mail boxes of political reporters shortly after dawn on Wednesday. "National Democrats must come to terms with the fact that momentum for the midterm elections will not materialize simply because they preordain it in the media or because they ask their special interest friends to buy it for them. The results in San Diego show that nothing has happened to alter the notion that House elections are about a choice between local personalities focused on local issues." His spokesman Carl Forti added, for good measure: "There are no moral victories in politics. A loss, is a loss, is a loss."

Democrats were quick to point out that, as victories go, it was an expensive one. "If they have to spend $5 million to defend a seat where the Republicans have such a huge advantage, the question remains whether they will be able to spend that kind of money in 40 or 50 districts," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The Republicans simply do not have the resources to cover the waterfront, if this is what it takes to defend San Diego."

The San Diego race wasn't the only one on Tuesday that the Dems had to spin. In a district north of San Francisco, Steve Filson, one of the candidates handpicked by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee looking to help retake the House, lost badly — the second candidate picked by DCCC head Rahm Emanuel who has lost in a primary this year. (The first: Ohio's Joe Sulzer.)

The Democrats pointed out that the San Diego voter turnout may be a trouble sign for the GOP. While Busby's 45% of the vote was just about the same percentage as John Kerry got in that district in 2004, Bilbray's 49% was more than five percentage points behind President Bush's re-election total there. Amy Walter, who analyzed the vote totals for the Cook Political Report, says that suggests the moderates and independents who usually vote GOP in the district were "sitting on the hands," while "Democrats don't have to worry about their voters coming out and staying motivated."

What both sides agree may have been fatal to Busby was a late-hour gaffe in which she seemed to be encouraging illegal immigrants to vote, when she told a Latino audience, "You don't need papers for voting." Though she quickly corrected the slip, saying that she meant "you don't need to be a registered voter" to help the campaign, conservative talk radio hosts had a field day with the comment, which carried particular resonance in a district so near the Mexican border. Yet, even though it came back to haunt her, Busby's gaffe may ultimately hurt Republicans' ability to present a united front this fall. Strategists in both parties say that her experience will make it even more difficult for President Bush to convince House Republicans to consider a compromise in their hard stance against legalizing immigrants.

With reporting by Perry Bacon, Jr./Washington