CA-50: Is Francine Busby the Next Paul Hackett?
The high-profile resignation of former California Rep. Duke Cunningham (R) last has week has set off a special election that is already drawing comparisons among Democrats to the special election in Ohio's 2nd District held earlier this year.
At first glance, there are a number of similarities.
Both seats are primarily suburban and lean toward Republicans -- although the California seat is friendlier to Democrats than Ohio's 2nd -- President Bush won California's 50th by 11 percent last year while he carried Ohio's 2nd by a whopping 28-point margin.
In California as in the Ohio race, Republicans look to have a crowded primary field while Democrats have unified behind a single candidate. And the prevailing political winds appear to be blowing directly into Republicans' faces thanks to GOP scandals dominating the headlines.
Democrat Francine Busby, the Cardiff school district board trustee and the party's 2004 candidate for the 50th District seat, doesn't have the military chops of Ohio 2nd District Democratic nominee Paul Hackett -- an Iraq war veteran. But in other ways she is far better positioned to pull off the upset. (Hackett came close but just short, taking 48 percent against Rep. Jean Schmidt in the August special election; Hackett is now running for Senate.)
Busby secured the endorsement of EMILY's List late last week, ensuring she will have the financial backing to be competitive. EMILY's List President Ellen Malcolm said Monday that Cunningham's resignation and "the whole constellation of issues" (i.e. Iraq and rising gas prices) "could change the mood" enough to elect Busby.
House Republicans aren't worried yet. "Busby got 36% in the last election. NOTHING has changed in this district outside of the current congressman resigning. And she is not running against the current congressman," said Carl Forti, spokesman at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Martha McKenna, political director of EMILY's List, said the organization has been working with Busby for some time and believes she is a much improved candidate following a 58 percent to 36 percent defeat at the hands of Cunningham last November. (As the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter notes, Busby underperformed John Kerry in the district by eight points in 2004, a worrisome sign for her ability to unify the Democratic base behind her candidacy.) McKenna compared Busby to Reps. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) and Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.), both of whom lost their first race for Congress. "[Busby] is much more serious about her campaign," said McKenna.
Busby is certainly in better financial shape (even without the EMILY's List endorsement) than she was in 2004. Last year she spent $212,000 compared to $940,000 for Cunningham. At the end of October, Busby had $176,000 in the bank, having raised $251,000 so far in 2005. None of the potential Republicans were anywhere near that total -- understandable since Busby has been running for the better part of the year while the Republicans have only been in the contest since Cunningham first announced his retirement mid-July.
Much depends on which Republican emerges from the open primary, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) seems likely to set for April 11 with an early June runoff if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote.
The GOP field has yet to sort itself out, but the entrance of former Rep. Brian Bilbray, a moderate, could make it difficult for Busby to gain traction. If a more conservative Republican (or one without much campaign experience) gets the most votes in the open primary, Busby's chances improve.
In Hackett's case, then state Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) won her party's primary after the two frontrunning candidates turned off voters with a series of negative charges and counter-charges. Schmidt seemed surprise at having won the nomination and was caught flat-footed by Hackett's aggressiveness.
The X-factor in this special election is what the political atmospherics look like when California voters go to the ballot box next spring. Hackett's bid was spurred by voters' discontent with the scandals surrounding Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) and an increasingly vocal opposition to the war in Iraq.
Cunningham's resignation after acknowledging that he accepted $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors, coupled with former San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy's (R) resignation earlier this year, seemingly create an appetite for change in the 50th District.
Special elections are snapshots in time, often unpredictable and entirely unique. The pieces appear to be falling into place for Busby, but national Republicans will be watching closely for any signs of a repeat of the Ohio 2nd District race and are likely to involve themselves financially at the first sign of trouble.
Sound off in the comments section about whether you think the comparison between California's 50th and Ohio's 2nd is apt.
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