Democrat cut adrift in GOP territory

Times staff writer

Some deep thinker -- Aeschylus, Hobbes, Flip Wilson? -- suggested that when you’re hot, you’re hot, but when you’re not ... well, you know the rest.

Francine Busby, the Democratic nominee in the 50th Congressional District, was hot in the spring. In the fall, she’s not.

As her party’s choice to grab the vacancy created when Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) resigned last year and was imprisoned for bribery, Busby was lavished with help from fellow Democrats.

The national party rushed the district money, advice, consultants and prominent personages to help in fundraising and media coverage.


Busby blanketed local television with commercials, many attacking the Republicans for a “culture of corruption.” The GOP was worried enough to launch counterattack ads.

The national press came running to see if the June runoff between Busby and former Republican congressman Brian Bilbray could be the beginning of a campaign year trend favoring out-of-power Democrats.

The results did not cut that way: Bilbray 49%, Busby 45% and two right-of-center candidates 5%. Bilbray went to Congress to finish the final six months of Cunningham’s term.

Now Bilbray and Busby are fighting for a full two-year term in Tuesday’s election. Bilbray, 55, has the power of incumbency. Busby, also 55, a Cardiff school board member, is largely on her own.


“Every one of my volunteers is local,” she said.

The national party is providing none of the money and other assistance it lavished in the June runoff. Busby waited until 10 days before the election to air a television commercial.

Still, she soldiers on, believing that voters in the suburban district north of San Diego are soured on the war in Iraq (she opposed the invasion), are distrustful of Republicans on issues such as Medicare and offshore oil drilling and are still not convinced that Bilbray, whose prior district was to the south, is really one of them.

To win, Busby would have to buck a California trend going back four decades, maybe longer.

Gary Jacobson, a congressional scholar at UC San Diego who has studied 40 years’ worth of California congressional elections, said no Democrat has beaten a Republican in a district where the GOP holds a registration edge of 4 percentage points or more.

Although that record could be broken in Northern California, where Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) is endangered because of scandal and his environmental record, Jacobson does not see Bilbray losing.

One prime reason: In the 50th District, which includes coastal communities and parts of several inland ones, the Republicans have a 14 percentage point advantage: Republicans 44%, Democrats 30% and independents 22% .

But Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego’s Mesa College, said Busby could become the beneficiary of the national mood that seems to be running against President Bush and the Republicans.


“I give her more of a chance than I did after the June primary,” Luna said, “but I still think she’s a longshot. She could be lucky to get back to 45%.”

Busby does not discourage easily. She was defeated by Cunningham in 2004 and signed up for a rematch even before scandal erupted over the former Navy pilot’s taking bribes from defense contractors.

Doubters see her 45% as a ceiling for Democrats in the district, noting that it’s the figure that John Kerry received in the 50th District as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004. Busby disagrees.

“We exploded the myth that this was some sort of safe Republican seat,” she said.

Bilbray served on the Imperial Beach City Council and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and was elected to Congress in 1994 from a district that includes a swath of mid-San Diego and some suburbs south of it. He was defeated in 2000 and became a lobbyist.

For this campaign, Bilbray has decided not to use television commercials. He has avoided all but one opportunity to debate Busby or make joint appearances. He engages in retail politics at shopping center parking lots.

His main issue -- in speeches and his campaign website -- is his tough stance against illegal immigration. He favors a wall along the border with Mexico and an ordinance passed in Escondido that would bar landlords from renting to illegal immigrants.

At the debate last week at television station KUSI, the two clashed on Iraq, oil drilling and illegal immigration. Busby called the Bush administration policy in Iraq a failure, and Bilbray said he had spent the day talking to the Border Patrol “about cracking down on the illegals hanging around the streets of North County.”


Each claimed that the other is being investigated by the district attorney.

San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis, through a spokesman, will say only that the Republicans have forwarded a complaint against Busby and the Democrats one against Bilbray. Both complaints were aired in the runoff election.

Bilbray contends that Busby may have broken the law by seeming to encourage illegal immigrants to vote for her last spring. Busby says she did no such thing.

“She’s the national poster child for voter fraud,” Bilbray said.

Busby says Bilbray has violated the law by giving, on different forms, his legal residence variously as Virginia, Imperial Beach and Carlsbad. Bilbray’s mother lives in Carlsbad and he swears he’s lived at her home for more than a year.

“We don’t need another congressman in prison or wondering if they’re honest,” Busby said.

In the debate, the two went toe to toe over issues and allegations. Nonpartisan Busby-watchers said she appeared sharper and more aggressive than in previous campaigns. Afterward she suggested that maybe the lack of consultants and handlers is an advantage.

“I do feel I have my own voice now,” she said. “I’m being stronger this time.”

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