The National Republican Congressional Committee poured nearly $5 million into the contest, put some 200 volunteers into a voter turnout drive throughout the district, and former Congressman Brian Bilbray pulled out a victory with 49 percent of the vote.
Two key issues, and a tactical strategy, were tested in the race. Bilbray took a tough-on-illegal-immigration stand that threw his liberal Democratic opponent, Francine Busby, on the defensive. She shot herself in the foot in the final week of the race when she told a Hispanic supporter, "You don't need papers for voting, you don't need to be a registered voter to help." That sparked a firestorm that stopped her momentum in the closing days. She won 45 percent of the vote.
The outcome also showed that the Democrats' "culture of corruption" campaign slogan had little if any impact, even in a district that was Ground Zero for the biggest congressional bribery scandal in years that sent Duke Cunningham to prison. It is now believed in senior GOP leadership circles that the corruption issue will have little or no traction beyond lawmakers directly implicated in the lobbying scandal.
Certainly, there is a danger of overanalyzing the significance of one special election. But if we are to believe that the political environment is as bad for Republicans as the analysts and pundits say it is, then Democrats should have done better. Busby polled no better than Sen. John Kerry's anemic vote in the district in 2004.
Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest tactical road-test for the Republicans in this race was its turnout drive. That effort was only a small microcosm of the massive, national campaign that will be deployed for the fall, identifying GOP voters, registering them, getting them to the polls. In this case, the Republican National Committee's well-oiled, all-volunteer machinery worked as it was planned. When fully deployed in the fall, the GOP's turnout army will number more than 1.5 million trained volunteers, something the Democrats are nowhere near matching at this point in the 2006 campaign.