Democrats Eye Cunningham's Abandoned Seat On Tuesday April 11, voters in San Diego go to the polls to choose a replacement for Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who retired in the face of a criminal investigation. The district is usually a safe Republican stronghold, but this time, Democrat Francine Busby is leading a crowded pack of contenders.
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Democrats Eye Cunningham's Abandoned Seat

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Democrats Eye Cunningham's Abandoned Seat

Democrats Eye Cunningham's Abandoned Seat

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Voters in San Diego will go to the polls in a special election next Tuesday to choose a replacement for disgraced ex-Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham. He's in prison for taking bribes from defense contractors, and although his former district is a Republican stronghold, a Democrat is expected to do very well.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

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 a million dollars for her campaign. She was tapped last month to deliver the Democrats' national radio address and she got much of the applause at a recent candidate's debate.

Ms. FRANCINE BUSBY (Democratic candidate for congress, California): I was here last year running for this, saying it's broken, that we have a Congressman here who used out tax payer dollars like a private cookie jar.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: 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.

Ms. BUSBY: I sat on the soccer sidelines here, I've sat on the surf mates, I am I feel the face and heart of this community.

HORSLEY: Busby's own community where she serves on the school board and has her campaign office is Cardiff. Hillside homes here look out over the Pacific Ocean.

At Cardiff Seaside Market sandwiched between a yoga studio and an environmentally friendly dry cleaner, fashionably dressed women can 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. Political scientist Carl Luna of Mesa College says that could limit Busby's appeal with more conservative voters further inland.

Mr. CARL LUNA (Mesa College): Her hope is that the more liberal, academic environmentalists on the coast would flock to her banner, which they seem to do, but she seems to hit about a 38 to 42 percent ceiling. There's just not enough people living on that coast.

HORSLEY: In fact, the liberal, academic neighborhood around the University of California campus was conspicuously carved out of the district. The kind of gerrymandering that's made nearly every house seat safe for one party or the other. So while Busby will probably get the most votes in the special election, she's unlikely to get the majority needed to win outright. There will almost certainly be a June runoff 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 who's 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 life guard in his youth, Bilbray once famously commandeered a bulldozer to block Mexican sewage.

Mr. BRIAN BILBRAY (Republican candidate for Congress, California): 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.

HORSLEY: Given recent scandals, Bilbray's career as a lobbyist could count against him, a wild card is millionaire businessman Eric Roach, who's spending a small fortune on TV ads.

(Soundbite of political TV ad)

Mr. ERIC ROACH (Republican candidate for Congress, California): I'm not a bureaucrat or a lobbyist, I have just one special interest, you. The choice is yours.

HORSLEY: 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. In the unlikely event that Republicans lose the district, that could signal big trouble for the party in power come November.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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