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Bilbray Victory Shows Voters Aren’t Crossing the Divide

It’s the rare election that offers both parties more reason for concern than optimism, but that may be exactly the verdict from last week’s congressional special election in San Diego County.

The result highlighted the GOP’s continuing vulnerability in this year’s battle for control of Congress. But it also suggested that Democrats are not yet positioned to squeeze the maximum benefit from that vulnerability.

Above all, Republican Brian Bilbray’s victory over Democrat Francine Busby demonstrated that this deeply polarized era is resistant to dramatic shifts in voter sentiment. The results showed that today’s voters generally stick with their party more reliably than their parents did a generation ago. That means changes in the balance of power are more likely to come incrementally than through the kind of sudden, seismic shift last seen when Republicans captured both the House and Senate in their 1994 landslide.

If there was ever a set of circumstances that might shake the loyalty of GOP voters, the Bilbray-Busby contest seemed to provide it. The two were vying to succeed disgraced Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a Republican convicted in a bribery scandal. Bilbray holds more moderate positions on social issues than many Republicans. And voters in the district weren’t immune to the general dissatisfaction with the nation’s direction that has spread almost everywhere during President Bush’s second term: Even Republican polls found that 70% of local voters believed the country was on the wrong track.

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Yet even in such an adverse climate, the evidence indicates that virtually all Republicans stuck with Bilbray. There were no exit polls to measure how individual groups voted. But another set of numbers tells the story. The special election decided who would fill the remainder of Cunningham’s term this year. Voters on the same day also cast ballots in primaries to choose the two parties’ nominees for the November election that will determine who holds the seat for the term beginning next January.

Comparing the results between the primaries and the special election is revealing. In that Republican primary (which Bilbray also won), 59,195 people voted. In the special election, Bilbray won 60,319 votes. The close parallel suggests that even though many Republicans were unhappy, they stuck with Bilbray in the special election rather than expressing their discontent with a vote for Busby. “In a partisan era like this one,” notes political scientist Gary Jacobson of UC San Diego, “it is hard to squeeze votes from the other side.”

That’s promising for Republicans because under Bush, their formula for political success has revolved around consolidating support among GOP partisans. Boosting Republican turnout was the key to the party’s gains in both the 2002 and 2004 elections. And in the Bilbray-Busby face-off, the Republican National Committee launched a mammoth turnout effort -- relying on 60 full-time staffers and 160 full-time volunteers, the party made 185,000 voter contacts in just the last week before the vote.

Even with Bush’s approval rating among GOP partisans drooping, the results show that the RNC can fire up its turnout machine this fall without fear that many Republicans will defect to vote for Democrats.

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Other numbers from the race, though, were more ominous for Republicans. Independent voters appeared to break overwhelmingly for Busby. Remember that Bilbray’s total in the special election exceeded the votes cast in the Republican primary only by about 1,100. Busby’s total in the special election exceeded the votes cast in the Democratic primary (which she won) by almost 10,000. That suggests she attracted the vast majority of independent voters who did not participate in either party primary.

Bilbray survived his meager showing with independents because the district leans so heavily Republican. But if independents bend nearly that much toward Democrats in other parts of the nation, plenty of Republican representatives from more moderate districts -- Rob Simmons in Connecticut, Heather A. Wilson in New Mexico, Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania -- could be looking for work after November.

Busby’s strength with independents was the best news for Democrats from the race. But her overall performance should trouble them. Despite all the tailwinds behind her, she won just 45% of the vote, not much more than the 44% that Democrat John F. Kerry captured in the district in the 2004 presidential race. Based on the primary results, turnout among Democratic partisans was higher than among Republicans, but it wasn’t nearly as high as Democrats might have hoped for, given Bush’s low poll numbers and the fact that a Democratic gubernatorial race was also on the ballot. And though Busby ran well among independents, few of them turned out, either.

All of that indicates that although Busby benefited from discontent with the Republicans, she “didn’t provide the kind of agenda around which people can rally in a positive way,” as Jacobson says. Democrats may be in the same situation nationally: In a new memo, veteran Democratic strategists Stanley B. Greenberg and James Carville warn that in recent months voters’ perceptions of the Democrats have deteriorated -- even as the share of Americans dissatisfied with Bush’s policies has increased. The party, they write, is at risk of “underperforming” in November if it does not provide a more compelling alternative.

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Senior Republican strategists recently calculated that turnout this year is down for both parties, relative to the average over the last 20 years, in almost all of the states that have held primaries. That pattern, Greenberg’s poll and, above all, the San Diego results send a clear message:

Discontent with Republicans in Washington is widespread, but it isn’t yet translating into consistent support for Democrats.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Sunday. Read current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ website at latimes.com/brownstein.


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