Election Day

It's not November yet, but two races will offer clues about the Democrats' future.

Published June 6, 2006 1:24PM (EDT)

Al Gore is in the race.

Well, not that one, but the former vice president has recorded a telephone message urging Democrats to turn out in support of Francine Busby's long-shot-but-suddenly-not bid to capture the congressional seat once held by imprisoned Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

As Gore's involvement indicates, the race for Cunningham's old seat is the main attraction as voters go to the polls in eight states today. Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 15-point margin in California's 50th District, but the Republican National Committee has been forced to dump $4.5 million into the race in an effort to help former Rep. Brian Bilbray hold on to Cunningham's seat for the GOP.

Will the Busby-Bilbray race be a sign of things to come? Yes and no. On the one hand, the Democrats' "culture of corruption" will inevitably play better in a district where the incumbent's in prison than it might in places where "Brent" and "Wilkes" aren't household words. Moreover, a Democratic gubernatorial primary, as lackluster as the Phil Angelides-Steve Westly race has been, may tilt the turnout toward Democrats. So while 2006 may be shaping up as a sea-change sort of year -- the New York Times says "the consensus in both parties" is that the Republicans "could lose the House and perhaps the Senate" -- there's an argument to be made that the Busby-Bilbray race is different from most that will come in November.

And yet, as MyDD's Chris Bowers explains, there's also a case to be made that a Busby win now would be a very, very dark omen for the Republicans. "No matter what happens," Bowers says, "We should all remember that that are at least seven open seat races with superior district demographics to the CA-50, and around 45 Republican-held districts overall with solid Democratic challenges and better demographics ... If Busby wins tomorrow, Republicans are almost certainly finished in November. Even if Bilbray ekes out a win, Republicans remain in serious trouble."

The other race we'll be watching closely today says less about Republicans' odds in November than it does about the kind of candidates Democrats want to represent them. In the race for the Democratic nomination to run against Abramoff-embattled Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, centrist state auditor John Morrison was the early front-runner but flat-lined after revelations that he had an affair with a woman who later married a man he investigated for securities fraud. State Sen. President Jon Tester, a favorite of the liberal blogosphere, has surged into what is now a neck-and-neck race. Polls show that either man could beat Burns, who took about $150,000 from Jack Abramoff, his clients and associates but blames his woes on the "Eastern liberal press."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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