Democrat Francine Busby was running far ahead late Tuesday in the race to fill the seat left by disgraced former U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, but appeared headed for a June runoff against either former Congressman Brian Bilbray or wealthy businessman Eric Roach.
With the absentee votes and two-thirds of precincts counted, Busby had 43%. Bilbray had 15% and Roach 14%, with a thousand votes separating the two Republicans.
The high-spending race in the 50th Congressional District attracted 14 Republicans, two Democrats and two minor-party candidates. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the top vote-getter in each party heads to the June runoff.
Busby, 55, a Cardiff school board member, was counting on voters in the Republican stronghold being disgusted with the Cunningham scandal and looking for a change.
But GOP leaders expect Republicans to coalesce around a single candidate in the runoff and retain the seat, which represents a district that includes the northern part of San Diego and several suburbs.
Bilbray, 55, is one of the region’s best-known and colorful political figures. The former lifeguard served on the Imperial Beach Council and San Diego County Board of Supervisors before being elected to Congress in 1994.
He was defeated in 2000 by Democrat Susan Davis.
Bilbray made his tough stand on illegal immigration the centerpiece of his campaign, but was outspent by Roach by at least 4 to 1.
Roach, 43, a former stock brokerage executive, is a political newcomer but had the backing of former Rep. Ron Packard.
Busby is making her second attempt to win the 50th seat, a district where Republicans hold a 44% to 30% edge in registration over Democrats, with 22% of voters listing themselves as independents. As the Democratic nominee in 2004, she polled 36% of the vote against Cunningham.
She announced her desire for a rematch months before Cunningham was caught in the scandal that led to his resignation and conviction on bribery and tax evasion charges. He is serving an eight-year prison sentence.
She has made ethics the centerpiece of her campaign. When the Republicans launched a last-minute TV campaign against her, she accused Cunningham of trying to influence the election from his prison cell.
With three millionaires -- Roach, Alan Uke and Bill Hauf -- on the Republican side, the race turned out to be one of the most expensive House contests in history, with about $5.8 million spent, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Much of the money went for TV commercials.
Polls showed the top three Republicans as Roach, Bilbray and former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, 46.
Roach was the big spender, devoting about $1.8 million mostly to a television barrage in which he promised an ethical approach to government but said little about his stand on issues except illegal immigration.
Roach, Bilbray and Kaloogian sparred throughout the campaign over illegal immigration, all taking a tough stand. Roach filed a legal action to keep Bilbray from listing himself as an immigration reform consultant on the ballot but failed.
Alone among the candidates, Kaloogian has visited U.S. troops in Iraq. Despite the proximity of the district to Camp Pendleton, the war did not become a major issue. Busby doubted the U.S. strategy but stopped short of joining Democrats who have called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Along with a possible runoff on the June ballot for the remainder of Cunningham’s term, there also will be party primaries to pick candidates for a November election for a two-year term. Tuesday’s candidates are also on the June primary ballot.
But the Republican Party is expected to pressure GOP candidates who are eliminated Tuesday to stop campaigning for the June primary and instead rally around the Republican who has qualified for the partial-term runoff.