Half empty or half full? Busby loses in California

The Republican National Committee spends $4.5 million to save a district the GOP carried by 22 points in 2004.

Published June 7, 2006 1:09PM (EDT)

In the most-watched race in Tuesday's voting, Democrat Francine Busby fell short in her bid to turn Randy "Duke" Cunningham's old seat from red to blue. The question for the morning after: Is the glass half empty, or is it half full?

If November is going to be a tidal wave or a sea change or whatever your oceanic metaphor of choice, the water didn't rise quite high enough for Busby. In a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 15 percent, Busby trails former GOP Rep. Brian Bilbray by a 49 to 45 percent margin with about 96 percent of the precincts reporting.

It's a huge improvement over 2004, when Busby lost to the then not-yet-imprisoned Cunningham by 22 percentage points, and the four-point win in a heavily Republican district cost the Republican National Committee $4.5 million. But huge improvements don't get you a seat in Congress, and if Democrats can't ride that "culture of corruption" business to victory in a seat where the Republican incumbent has wound up in jail on a bribery charge -- well, maybe it's time to think about a different theme in races where the taint is more of a whiff.

So half full or half empty? The early reaction says it's somewhere in between:

Congressional Quarterly: "An upset by Busby almost certainly would have been declared by Democratic strategists as an omen of a big surge for their party in a year when national polls show a sharp downturn in public approval for President Bush and the Republican Party in general. It also would have reduced from 15 to 14 the net gain Democrats would need this fall to end the Republicans' House majority. The best that Democrats can argue now is that the outcome represents incremental progress. Bilbray's 4 percentage-point margin was tiny compared to Cunningham's 22-point thumping of Busby two years ago, before he was undone by scandal."

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza: "The race, which was initially expected to be a slam dunk for Republicans, turned into a nip-and-tuck affair thanks to a toxic local and national political environment for the GOP. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds painted the race as a sign that the much-discussed national Democratic wave is simply not building. '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,' said Reynolds, whose organization spent nearly $5 million to ensure Bilbray's victory."

MyDD's Chris Bowers: "If Republicans want to spin losing 18 points after spending $4.5 million of committee money as a good thing, go for it. After all, spin is basically why they spent so much money on this race. By blowing their wad in a solidly Republican district, they wanted to change the media narrative on the election in their favor ... [But] no matter what the media says, no Democrat should be mistaken about this result. First, this is a huge, seismic shift in our favor that bodes extremely well for November. If we receive an 18 percent shift nationwide, we will win the House easily. If Republican candidates are pulling only 20 percent of the independent vote, the Indycrat realignment is still on. At the same time, this is not as good as we could have done."

By Tim Grieve

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

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