The Meaning of Bilbray's Win in California

Republicans hold onto Duke Cunningham's congressional seat in California.

Republicans hold onto Duke Cunningham's congressional seat in California. hide caption

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Jon Tester

An easy winner in the Montana Democratic primary, Jon Tester poses a big threat to Sen. Conrad Burns (R) in November. hide caption

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Ollie North and Dana Rohrabacher

Eighteen years ago today, an earlier campaign visit by Oliver North helps two Reaganites win their GOP primaries in California: Dana Rohrabacher (above left) and Chris Cox. hide caption

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In some ways, no matter what happened in Tuesday's special California congressional election, it wouldn't have changed the big picture: Republicans are fighting for their lives in the 2006 midterm elections.

The war in Iraq is still going badly, gasoline prices are still high, support for President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress is still tepid. While Democrats are doing their best (see Jefferson, Bill) to equalize the "culture of corruption" charge, Republicans are still bracing themselves for what may come out of the Jack Abramoff lobbying investigation. The outlook for the Grand Old Party is still not pretty.

And it's hard to make the case that the four-point victory margin of Republican Brian Bilbray over Democrat Francine Busby to replace convicted former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) changes much. Or that it was an especially compelling test case to begin with. It's a solidly Republican district carried twice by President Bush. Cunningham himself beat Busby by 20 points two years ago. You can already hear the post mortems: Bilbray should have won it.

Still, it would be wrong to paint the result as anything other than a victory for the Republicans. Given the national mood, given the fact that their previous incumbent is now spending eight-plus years in the slammer, given the split in the party over issues such as immigration, given the fact that the final pre-election polls had the race dead even, a win is a win is a win. And when you add the fact that John McCain cancelled his appearance at a Bilbray fundraiser because of differences over immigration, and that a Minutemen-backed independent candidate took an additional 4 percent of the vote, Bilbray didn't do so bad after all.

Credit Busby for some of this. She made a clear blunder in the waning days of the campaign when she was quoted as saying, "You don't need papers for voting. You don't need to be a registered voter to help." Some took that — fairly or not — as an invitation for illegal aliens to come out and vote. The apparent error played perfectly into Bilbray's get-tough-on-immigration strategy — a strategy that became necessary when conservatives threatened to sit out the election in protest over Bilbray's other, more moderate, views.

Here's another factoid: In the April election, when 18 candidates (14 of them Republicans) crowded the ballot, Busby finished first with 44 percent of the vote. Then came two months of a tense runoff campaign, in which Busby became the poster child of the Democratic Party. She actually outraised her opponent, according to the latest FEC reports. On Tuesday, she finished with ... 45 percent of the vote.

Ultimately, Bilbray's effective use of the immigration issue may be bad news for Republican leaders like President Bush, who hope that the House and Senate can reconcile their differences and come to an agreement on a final bill. That's not to say it's a tactic that would play well in other districts. Not when there are so many other factors that could keep Republicans from coming out to vote in November.

For one day, at least, it's not necessarily doom and gloom for the GOP. Still, Republican congressional campaign committee chairman Tom Reynolds (R-NY) may not be exactly on the mark when he said, "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."

Tell that to the Democrats in 1994. Or the Republicans in 1974.

Other Primary Results:

CALIFORNIA:

Senate: Former state legislator Richard Mountjoy is the long-shot Republican nominee in November against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D).

Governor: State Treasurer Phil Angelides narrowly won the Democratic nomination, 48-44 percent, in an expensive and nasty primary over state Controller Steve Westly. Angelides will face GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in November.

4th Congressional District: Rep. John Doolittle is one of several Republican incumbents under the microscope for his former friendship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (See Six Degrees of Jack Abramoff.) Doolittle took 67 percent against an unfunded opponent in the primary and will face retired Air Force Lt. Col. Charlie Brown in the general election. It's hard to make the case that Doolittle is in trouble, but if the "culture of corruption" issue takes off, this would be a seat to watch.

11th Congressional District: Rep. Richard Pombo, another Republican weighed down by his ties to Abramoff, as well as a controversial environmental record, disposed of ex-Rep. Pete McCloskey in the GOP primary with 62 percent of the vote. McCloskey, a liberal Republican who gave up his House seat in a 1982 Senate bid, had challenged President Nixon's renomination on an anti-Vietnam War platform back in '72. Democratic officials in Washington, especially House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, backed Navy veteran Steve Filson in the primary. But Filson was clobbered in the primary by Jerry McNerney, who lost badly to Pombo two years ago.

22nd Congressional District: The seat of powerful House Ways and Means Committee chair Bill Thomas (R), who is retiring after 14 terms, is all but certain to go to state Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R), a Thomas protégé.

36th Congressional District: Rep. Jane Harman (D), attacked by some in her party for being too hawkish on the war in Iraq, won renomination with 62 percent over anti-war activist Marcy Winograd, who had more of a following in the blogosphere than at the ballot box.

Other Races: Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, a former two-term governor and presidential hopeful, won the Democratic primary for attorney general and will face state Sen. Chuck Poochigian (R) in the fall. Succeeding Brown as mayor of Oakland will be former Congressman Ron Dellums (D). The race for lieutenant governor will be between state Sen. Tom McClintock (R) and state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi (D).

ALABAMA:

Governor: Gov. Bob Riley (R) easily won renomination against former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who was ousted from his job when he refused to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a state courthouse building. Riley's Democratic opponent will be Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, who came from behind to defeat former Gov. Don Siegelman in the primary. Siegelman had been considered the early favorite for the nomination until he was indicted on racketeering charges; he spent primary day, in fact, on trial. He narrowly lost his job four years ago to Riley.

Other races: George Wallace Jr., son of the late Alabama Democratic governor and presidential candidate, finished second in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor and advances to a July 18 runoff against attorney Luther Strange. The Republican winner will face former Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. (D) in November. A state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage was passed by a 4-1 margin.

IOWA

Governor: Two-term Gov. Tom Vilsack, thought to be eyeing a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in two years, is retiring. The Dem nomination to succeed him was won by Secretary of State Chet Culver, the son of ex-Sen. John Culver. He got 39 percent of the vote against former Economic Development Director/ex-Rep. Michael Blouin and state Rep. Ed Fallon, and will face GOP Rep. Jim Nussle in November.

1st Congressional District: The race for Nussle's House seat will be between entrepreneur Mike Whalen (R) and attorney Bruce Braley (D). This is high on the list of seats the Democrats are hoping to capture in November.

MISSISSIPPI:

Senate: State Rep. Erik Fleming has the Democratic nomination but is given no chance in November against three-term GOP Sen. Trent Lott.

2nd Congressional District: Rep. Bennie Thompson (D) defeated state Rep. Chuck Espy, the nephew of Thompson's predecessor, Mike Espy, in the Democratic primary. Both candidates were African-American; Espy had called for a generational change.

MONTANA:

Senate: Sen. Conrad Burns (R), who took more money from Jack Abramoff than any other member of Congress, easily won renomination to a fourth term over state Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan and several others. The Democratic primary was won by state Senate President Jon Tester, who trounced state Auditor John Morrison. Morrison, the early frontrunner in the race, saw his lead vanish following reports of an extramarital affair. The story became even more complicated when the man whom that woman eventually married was investigated by Morrison's office on securities fraud charges — and allegedly received special treatment in the investigation. Burns, extremely vulnerable this year, narrowly won re-election in 2000; Montana has been trending Democratic ever since.

NEW JERSEY:

Senate: Both Robert Menendez, the Democrat who was appointed to the Senate by his predecessor, now-Gov. Jon Corzine, and Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the son of a popular former governor, easily won their respective primaries. Some were waiting to see how many votes Kean, who is pro-choice, would lose to his conservative primary challenger, John Ginty. But Kean won the primary with 76 percent of the vote.

13th Congressional District: The Democratic nod for the seat vacated by Menendez easily went to former state Assembly Speaker Albio Sires. Sires is the heavy favorite to win the seat in November.

NEW MEXICO:

Senate: Urologist Allen McCulloch (R) faces an uphill challenge against four-term Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman in November.

Governor: Bill Richardson (D) is the heavy favorite for a second term against Republican radiologist J.R. Damron.

SOUTH DAKOTA:

Governor: Gov. Mike Rounds (R) found himself in the midst of controversy earlier this year after he signed the most restrictive abortion bill in the nation. But he remains a clear favorite in November over his Democratic rival, Dr. Jack Billion. Billion, a former state legislator, easily defeated former Farmers Union President Dennis Wiese in the Dem primary.

THE BRONX: Because of all these exciting primaries, not everybody has time to read the sports pages, so I thought we'd help out. Last night, at Yankee Stadium, the ailing, battered, on-life-support, over-the-hill Yankees defeated the Boston Red Sox for the second time in a row, by the score of 2-1. The score of Monday night's game was 13-5.

ALL'S WELD THAT ENDS WELD: Bill Weld is out of the contest for governor of New York. Weld, the former two-term Massachusetts governor, had been under mounting pressure to withdraw from the race after his poor showing against John Faso, a former state assemblyman, at last week's state Republican convention. Weld is a pro-choice and pro-gay rights Republican who had the tacit backing of retiring Gov. George Pataki and state GOP chair Stephen Minarik.

But Weld was outhustled and out-organized by Faso, a pro-life former state assemblyman who already had the backing of the N.Y. Conservative Party but who had nowhere near the kind of money that Weld did. Weld lost the official GOP endorsement to Faso last week, 61 percent to 39 percent, and while it was enough to qualify for the Sept. 12 primary ballot, Weld knew his campaign was over. The Democratic frontrunner is state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who is a heavy favorite to win the governorship in November, though he does face a primary challenge from Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi.

(Trivia: When Weld first ran for governor of Massachusetts, in 1990, he also lost the party endorsement overwhelmingly at the Republican state convention. But he went on to beat Steven Pierce in the primary and then won the general election.)

We have room for one question:

Q: I see that former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) is visiting states like Iowa, making noises about running for president in 2008. If he did run, it would come not long after he lost his Senate seat. Has anyone ever been elected president after losing his previous campaign? — Yvette Thompson, Des Moines, Iowa

A: The most obvious answer, of course, is Richard Nixon, who was defeated in his bid to become governor of California in 1962 but then went on to win the presidency six years later. You have to go back to the 19th century, back when U.S. senators were elected not by popular vote but by state legislatures, for the last previous one.

Benjamin Harrison (R) was defeated in his 1887 bid for re-election to the Senate from Indiana by the Democratic-controlled legislature; he was elected U.S. president the following year. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln (R) challenged Stephen Douglas for his Senate seat, but the Illinois state legislature elected Douglas in 1859 by a vote of 54-46. One year later Lincoln defeated the same Douglas, among others, for the presidency. (Note: This list excludes those who unsuccessfully ran for president in their last campaign before making it to the White House, such as Ronald Reagan.)

REMINDER: "Political Junkie" is featured every Wednesday on NPR's Talk of the Nation, a live call-in program. This week features a special extended "Junkie," starting at 2:06 Eastern. Highlights: results of Tuesday's primaries (focusing on California 50); the withdrawal of Bill Weld in New York; and the question, Who will win control of Congress in November?

Also ... Check out NPR's interactive election map, featuring up-to-date info on every Senate, gubernatorial and key House race in the country, with early projections.

This Day in Campaign History: Campaign visits by former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North appear to have paid off, as both Chris Cox (R-40th CD) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-42nd) — two former Reagan White House aides — win their respective primaries in two open California congressional districts. The big loser of the day is Rep. Ernest Konnyu (R-12th), who is defeated for renomination by Stanford law professor Tom Campbell. Konnyu is the year's only House incumbent to get knocked off in the primary (June 7, 1988).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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