Voters in San Diego will hold a special election Tuesday to choose a replacement for disgraced ex-U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. He's in prison for taking bribes from defense contractors. Although his former district is a Republican stronghold, a Democrat is likely to be the top vote-getter.
In a losing congressional race two years ago, Francine Busby was the Democrats' sacrificial lamb. Now, she's trying to sound like a lioness. With the once-popular Cunningham out of the picture, Busby has raised more than $1 million for her campaign. Last month, the Democrats tapped her to deliver the party's national radio address. And she received much of the applause at a recent candidates' debate.
"I was here last year, running for this," Busby told the friendly audience. "Is anybody else out there concerned that they feel we're being sold out? That we have a congressman here who used our taxpayer dollars like a private cookie jar?"
Busby has none of Cunningham's old swagger, nor does she want it. A local newspaper columnist dubbed her "a suburban Everywoman," and she seems to savor the title.
"I've sat on the soccer sidelines here. I've sat in the surf meets. I am, I feel, the face and heart of this community," Busby said.
Busby's own community, where she serves on the school board and has her campaign office, is called Cardiff by the Sea. Hillside homes there look out over the Pacific Ocean. At Cardiff's Seaside Market, sandwiched between a yoga studio and an environmentally friendly dry cleaner, fashionably dressed women shop for organic produce or frozen, free-range turkey meatballs.
In a congressional district that's whiter and wealthier than most of California, Cardiff is whiter and wealthier still. It's also more liberal than the rest of the district, which could limit Busby's appeal with more conservative voters further inland.
"Her hope is that the more liberal, academic environmentalists on the coast would flock to her banner, which they seem to do," says political scientist Carl Luna of San Diego's Mesa College. "But she seems to hit about a 38-to-42-percent ceiling. There are just not enough people living on that coast."
In fact, the liberal, academic neighborhood around the University of California campus was conspicuously carved out of the district a few years ago to shore up a neighboring Democratic district. That's the kind of gerrymandering that's made nearly every House of Representative seat "safe" for one party or the other.
So although Busby will probably get the most votes in the special election, she's unlikely to get the majority needed to win outright. A June runoff is a near-certainty. And 17 other candidates are vying for the right to take on Busby, most of them conservative Republicans. There's a defense contractor, a retired pro-football player, and a highway patrol sergeant whose motto is "take the con out of Congress."
One of the best-known Republicans in the race is former congressman-turned-lobbyist Brian Bilbray. He's a relative moderate, who steers clear of polarizing social issues. Like all the candidates in the race, Bilbray talks tough on illegal immigration. A border beach lifeguard in his youth, Bilbray once famously commandeered a bulldozer to block Mexican sewage.
"As somebody who grew up next to a third-world country, I have seen what is going to happen to the future of America if we do not get serious about the immigration issue," Bilbray said at the candidates' forum. "If you want to have a nation of a few wealthy people and massive amounts of poor, uneducated people, you can go south to that."
Given recent scandals, Bilbray's career as a lobbyist could count against him.
A wildcard candidate is millionaire businessman Eric Roach, who's spending a small fortune on TV ads. In one commercial, Roach declares, "I'm not a bureaucrat or a lobbyist. I have just one special interest: you."
Republican voters have a big field to choose from in the special election. But assuming that's narrowed in a June runoff to just one Republican against Democrat Busby, the GOP candidate will be the heavy favorite. If the unlikely event that Republicans lose the district does occur, that could signal big trouble for the party in power come November.