Republicans dodged a bullet last week when former Congressman Brian Bilbray was elected to the seat held by convicted felon Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who now sits in a federal prison. The Democrats had been pushing the theme that Republicans represented "a culture of corruption." If ever they should have been able to capitalize on that theme it was in California's 50th District. Indeed Francine Busby, the Democratic candidate, had been leading Bilbray for weeks in various surveys, although the race looked to be very close. Cunningham actually had a list of bribes and how much a certain type defense contract would cost. In the end and some $4.5 million later, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee had themselves a winner. They breathed a collective sigh of relief when Bilbray won because many of them believed that if Bilbray lost their fate in November would have been sealed.
The President and GOP Senatorial leaders could not have been that happy over the Bilbray victory. Known as a liberal Republican during his first terms in Congress, Bilbray turned out to be a Tom Tancredo Republican as to immigration. He supported the House bill on immigration and his Democratic opponent supported the Senate bill, backed by the President. Moreover Ms. Busby a few days before the election was recorded by one of the Minutemen attending a largely Hispanic rally as saying in response to a question that you didn't need papers to vote. The questioner, with a Mexican accent, asked Busby how he could help since he didn't have papers. That is when she made the mistake of her career. After talk-show host Rodger Hedgecock on KOGO played the tape on his highly rated show the race exploded. Ms. Busby spent the last days before the election saying she just misspoke. Republicans spent the last few days before the election seeing to it that the tape was played by other San Diego talk-show hosts, as well as national figures, such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
While Republicans did have a reason to celebrate, the party is not over yet. Although Busby received only one percent of the vote more than Senator John F. Kerry in losing to President George W. Bush in that district in 2004, it is unclear whether she would have won had she not made that misstep on immigration. Moreover, the Bilbray victory may make it much harder for Republican and Democrat conferees on the respective immigration bills which passed the House and the Senate. The House bill essentially provides for border security first, suggesting that any kind of guest-worker program should wait until after the border is secure and after we have stopped the inflow of illegal immigrants. The Senate bill has an unenforceable program which amounts to amnesty. Its border security provisions are far weaker than those of the House bill. Bilbray's election gives heart to House conservatives whose position is that no bill is better than a bad bill. Thus far Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI) has been hanging tough. The White House has been floating rumors that Sensenbrenner might be open to compromise. He has not denied those rumors although he has continued to say that amnesty is a deal breaker. Now it is far more likely that the House will insist upon most of its version of the immigration solution. Unless the Senate caves to a significant degree there is likely to be no bill this fall. House Members have told me privately that they can get by with defending their position but that they could not get the Senate to give in to the House position and therefore no bill was possible. Whereas if the House gives in to the Senate position and passes a compromise position, even if they vote no, their constituents are likely not to forgive them. Representative Mike Pence (R-IN) has come up with a compromise bill on immigration which at least eliminates the worst provisions of the Senate bill. If Members feel they must pass an immigration bill before the elections, the Pence bill could serve as a negotiating vehicle.
A good reason the Republicans need to be thankful for Bilbray's victory is this: Had Busby won, big money would begin to flow to the Democrats upon the assumption they would win in November. It happened a little bit when Democrats took two Republican seats early in this Congress. But a Busby victory would have opened up the spigot and Republicans would have had even more trouble keeping control of Congress this fall.
So from that perspective, the $4.5 million would be considered by the Republican leadership as a critical expenditure. On the other hand that money will now not be available to fund other marginal races. That could prove to be fatal should Democrats win very narrowly and should a few Republican seats which were in trouble not be funded. Democrats are still extremely confident about winning the House, even though after the Bilbray victory Las Vegas odds-makers increased GOP chances to win from 45% to 60%. Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Minority Whip, said if the Democrats can't win under these conditions (an unpopular war, uneasiness about jobs, Abramoff and other corruption, etc.) then they may as well give up. Hoyer is a more moderate Democrat who had a hotly contested race for Minority Leader against Representative Nancy Pelosi. When he lost he settled for the #2 position in the Democratic Minority. The two might square off again if Democrats win. The National Democratic Campaign Committee, as with its counterpart in the Senate, has agreed to support more moderate Democrats, some of which are pro-life. They might be more likely to support Hoyer than Pelosi and in an election in which the Democrats might win by three or four seats that could be critical.
Bilbray was opposed in his primary by former California Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian. Now, not only has he taken the hardest line on immigration of any candidate besides Tancredo, he also has given some indication that he will support at least some part of the National Rifle Association (NRA) agenda. When asked about this change, he said he had a much different district before. The Cunningham - Bilbray District is seen as solidly conservative, although the demographics are changing and Cunningham's margin of victory had declined somewhat in recent elections. The coalition groups ranging from NRA to pro-family to right-to-life to fiscal conservative and groups such as 60-Plus stayed out of the race. They felt they had little at stake in a Bilbray victory. That probably accounts for Bilbray's having won with only 50% of the vote whereas Cunningham usually won with 56% to 60%. Cunningham also received the support of NRA, pro-life and pro-family groups.
By the way, in that same election which carried Bilbray to victory in one district, statewide voters defeated a plan to enact a surcharge on high-income earners in order to pay for a pre kindergarten program all over California. California voters, despite their reputation, are not all that liberal. We'll see now if Bilbray will turn out to be a team player with the House Leadership or a maverick, as he was his prior time in Congress.
Today's celebrity could turn into tomorrow's nightmare.