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A Closer Look at the GOP's Win in California 50

Both parties spent the last two weeks lowering expectations regarding yesterday's special election in California's 50th District. The spin reached critical mass overnight and this morning with Republicans trumpeting that former Rep. Brian Bilbray's victory shows there is no saliency for the "culture of corruption" argument. Democrats, on the other hand, painted the narrowness of their candidate's loss in a GOP-leaning district as a sign of the desire for change in the country.

2006 Campaign Map
Interactive Campaign Map: More Election Data and Analysis.

Who's right? Let's look inside the spin.

First, the raw numbers. In the April 11 special open primary, Democrat Francine Busby received 44 percent of the vote -- the same percentage that John Kerry (D) took in the district in the 2004 presidential election. Almost three months later, Busby received 45 percent.

While Democrats are quick to note that registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by 55,000 in the 50th, it's clear from the past three elections that Busby essentially met, but failed to exceed the Democratic Party's recent performance in the district.

Democrats rightly point out that the National Republican Congressional Committee was forced to spend nearly $5 million on the race, a massive sum for a district where President Bush won 55 percent of the vote in 2004. All told, the NRCC and Bilbray outspent Busby and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee two to one.

Rep. Brian Bilbray
Meet the newest member of Congress... Brian Bilbray celebrates his victory in California 50th District special election. (Getty Images)

Given its financial constraints, the NRCC won't be able to spend $5 million on every one of the GOP's competitive House races this fall -- especially if the playing field continues to expand. Republican officials retort that their spending in the 50th was an anomaly created by the combination of a difficult national environment, the scandal surrounding imprisoned ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) and a flawed candidate in Bilbray -- as a former member of Congress and lobbyist.

The reality of Tuesday's special election is that Republicans found a way to win despite a number of factors working against them. Yes, this race -- at times -- was closer than many Republicans wanted or expected, but in the end Democrats were unable to get over the top.

The thought that coming close is almost as good as winning for Democrats is simply not plausible. In order to retake the House, Democrats will need to win in seats that tilt toward Republicans -- maybe not as strongly as California's 50th but close in many cases. "Close" simply does not count in politics.

In the end, yesterday's election results change little. If Democrats had won, it would have been interpreted (rightly, we think) as a sign of a wave building that could well wash Republicans out of the majority. But simply because Busby came up short does not mean that any hopes of Democrats winning back the House in November have vanished.

The national environment -- as determined by the deep disapproval for the job President Bush is doing and overwhelming majorities who believe the country is heading in the wrong direction -- is still very difficult for Republicans and ensures that a number of incumbents who have not faced serious elections in recent years will be forced to run real campaigns. Tuesday's result means that while these incumbents are endangered, they are not yet extinct.

A Bilbray win is a rare bit of good news for Republicans who have been pummeled for much of the past year by sagging poll numbers and no clear legislative agenda. His hard line stance on illegal immigration could also provide a blueprint for Republicans to energize their dispirited base in the fall.

But it would be a mistake to read too much into Tuesday's results. Republicans still face a very tough political environment this November and Democrats can still make a case that retaking the House is within reach.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 7, 2006; 10:56 AM ET
Categories:  House  
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