SAN DIEGO -- The baroque process of picking a replacement for jailed Republican Rep. Randy "Duke'' Cunningham has made California's 50th Congressional District inscrutable. It will be deciphered by the evening of June 6.
On April 11, the district voted on 18 candidates -- 14 of them Republicans. If one had received more than 50 percent, he or she would have Cunningham's seat, at least until this November's election. Democrat Francine Busby, 55, a women's studies lecturer who in 2004 won 36 percent running against Cunningham, finished first, but with only 43.7 percent, about what Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry won in the 50th in 1996, 2000 and 2004 -- 45, 43 and 44, respectively. So Republicans heaved sighs of relief, thinking the seat is safe. They sighed prematurely.
On June 6, Busby faces Brian Bilbray, 55, who led all Republicans on April 11. The 14 Republicans won 53.5 percent of the vote, but Bilbray -- who from 1995-2001 represented the neighboring 49th District -- won just 15.3 percent. And Eric Roach, 43, a wealthy self-financing candidate, won 14.5 percent.
But June 6 is California's primary day. While the 50th will elect either Busby or Bilbray to a six-month term, Democratic voters also will nominate Busby to be on the November ballot seeking a full term. Republicans, picking their November nominee from among 10 of the 14 Republicans who were on the April 11 ballot, might nominate not Bilbray but Roach, if Roach campaigns for the June 6 nomination.
Roach says that after April 11, when the Republican establishment rallied around Bilbray, Darrell Issa, the Republican who now represents the 49th, threatened to "bury'' Roach if he did not quit campaigning. Roach, unamused by such pressure to disappear, says 45,000 of the 73,000 votes cast for Republicans April 11 were for conservatives. He is one (pro-life and aghast at spending by the Republican-controlled Congress) and he says Bilbray is not because Bilbray is pro-choice and "has voted for many tax increases.''
And Bilbray, since losing the 49th district in 2000, has been a Washington lobbyist, with a home in Northern Virginia, where his children attended school. Because Busby is running against the Republicans' "culture of corruption,'' which to many people means lobbyists, Roach says "her whole premise goes away'' if he, Roach, is the Republican candidate in November.
"If I don't run,'' he says, "(Bilbray) is going to for sure lose.'' Roach says that unless he is running June 6, disgruntled conservatives will stay home. And Democratic turnout will be higher on June 6 than it was on April 11 because of the hotly contested primary to pick the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee against Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Roach says that when Busby's campaign and liberal bloggers concluded that she could not get more than 50 percent on April 11, they urged Democrats to cast some votes for Bilbray because they thought he would be easier to beat than Roach on June 6. Roach says Bilbray could lose to Busby on June 6 -- and if he, Roach, does not run, Bilbray will win the Republican nomination that day, a prelude to Bilbray's losing to Busby again in November.
Bilbray, who says Busby would have preferred running against Roach's sharply contrasting conservatism, is serene. He has long been hawkish against illegal immigration, which is the issue here. A surfer who grew up within sight of the Mexican border, he says he rescued illegals when they were drowning, pulled from the surf the bodies of some who had drowned, and saw the bodies of an elderly brother and sister who were killed dashing across a freeway in one of the illegals' so-called "banzai charges.''
In 1997, Bilbray sponsored a bill to deny citizenship at birth to children born in America to parents who are neither citizens nor legal residents. Busby supports the McCain-Kennedy bill which would lead to legalizing the perhaps 12 million illegals in the country, and that, Bilbray says, "would create a whole new bubble'' of immigration -- 30 million relatives of the 12 million.
He says a local joke is that before the April 11 vote, his campaign "didn't spend any money on TV and radio because we spent all our money buying Mexican flags.'' He is referring to the flags that were so prevalent at recent rallies by immigrants that they enraged and, Bilbray hopes, energized voters he needs.
As for Roach, Bilbray says "the male ego is a fragile thing -- as any woman can tell you.'' He expects Roach to recede, once the sting of the April 11 loss subsides. Roach is visiting Washington this week, measuring conservatives' support for continuing his campaign.