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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.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 6, 2005; 9:05 AM ET
Categories:  House  
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Next: Connecticut: Awakening of the Sleeping Bear?


Your site is realy very interesting.

Posted by: Nice site | February 27, 2006 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Busby is a fiscal conservative. This was illustrated a couple of years ago by her actions on the Cardiff School Board. At the time, accepting transfer students was profitable for the district, but new funding rules threatened to make transfer students money losers. After many meetings and statements by Busby to the effect of "we can't just drop these transfer students without any transition" the board ultimately decided to do just that because there was a financial risk to do otherwise.

I bring it up because it was a crisis situation that Busby was directly involved in that affected a few hundred people. I think the board ultimately made a fiscally responsible decision.

Posted by: Busby_not_that_liberal | January 6, 2006 5:02 PM | Report abuse

I live in the 50th and am familiar with Busby, a decent enough person whose heart is in the right place. While we may not be able to field a military hero, we need someone who will go to war against the Republican machine--- Bush, Chaney Delay Hassert et al, who have usurped our democracy.
There is time when anger is appropriate, and anything less seems disconnected. This is not the time for a balanced, focus group tested campaign. It is time for controlled, pointed, and intellignet indignation.
If Busby does not provide this, a decent independent candidate, just might do the job. We can not impeach Bush for his distortion of executive authority under the umbrella of being at war, a war that he has acknowledged will never be won. This election is an occasion to repudiate his, and his party's actions. We need a candidate who is willing to make the case, forcefully and articulately.
This is not just another campaign; it is a test of what this country really is. And whether democracy is just another out of fashion idea that nobody takes seriuosly anymore.

Here is a link to further thoughts on this issue.

Posted by: Al Rodbell | January 1, 2006 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Very apt comparison between CA 50 & OH 2nd. Both GOP govs are in trouble with the electorate, both Repub. parties are in dissaray with $ scandals. Here in CA the Demos are in a full court press to gather a couple of million bucks to win. There is a deep belief that the seat is in play on a Democratic year.

Posted by: Peter Lorenzo | December 23, 2005 12:07 PM | Report abuse

CA-50 is a tough row for Dem to hoe, but the sleeze surrounding Cunningham, Hunter, and Issa will get worse when we get some fresh indictments to the "un-named coconspirators". With our first nationally important race in memory, San Diego County Democrats will rise to the challenge and elect Francine Busby.

Posted by: demista | December 22, 2005 3:42 AM | Report abuse

I'm from the 50th and I hope Bilbray does get the nomination. He's an already deposed congressman (we voted him out for Susan Davis and then I got re-districted) and he's a carpetbagger to boot, having moved in with his mom so he could run in the district.

Posted by: bcf | December 8, 2005 11:07 PM | Report abuse

Although Duke Cunnungham's seat is in Republican territory the GOP is in a whole in Calif. and their "savoir" Governor Arnold is in deep trouble and will be lucky to save himself. And the war is unpopular, therefore, if Arnold is defeated he could take the ticket down with him and the San Diego seat could go Democratic. Like Ohio "the natives are restless" with the local Republicans who have made several mistakes and people get tired with entrenched power.

The odds favor a Republican but remember the downfall of "B-1 Bob Dornan" next door in Orange County a few years ago.

Peter Lorenzo

Posted by: Peter Lorenzo | December 7, 2005 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I live in the 50th. I've heard neighbors argue that "Washington must be a terrible place, look at how it corrupted Duke". It would take a truly remarkable Democrat to win in this district - perhaps a military hero.

Posted by: Keith | December 7, 2005 9:37 AM | Report abuse

I stand by my numbers and in fact got them from the Hamilton County, OH BOE. 25% turnout. What's your point?

DB: You sound like a non-Ohioan who doesn't know the players, the landscape, and the voters. Hackett will not back out of the senate race and in fact is the one I least want Dewine to face in '06. I don't think he will beat Brown and he will not beat Schmidt for the reasons I stated above.

AS for clearing the field for Strickland, if you and others think that was a set up designed to give him a free primary...well again, you don't know what is happening here in Buckeyeland.

There is a lot of internal durmoil with the state Dems who are now leaderless with many who want the job. Also, Liberal St Sen Eric Fingurehut is likely to get into the race against Strickland, largely because the far left can't stand the idea of a moderate Dem like Strickland as governor so Fingurhut is their man and there may still be others. There is a big fight for the Dem leadership right now and it remains to be seen how united they may be after the dust settles.


Posted by: vivabush04OH | December 7, 2005 9:06 AM | Report abuse

jean schmidt is really a man?

Posted by: jay lassiter | December 6, 2005 11:31 PM | Report abuse

If Busby runs a campaign as a pragmatic, problem solver who is not beholden to lobbyists, and paints her opponents as being the party of corruption, she has a shot. A long shot however.

As New Jersey proved, a Democratic scandal did not stop Corzine from winning or was there a Republican tide at the legislative level.
In Ohio, I think Mean Jean is in big trouble and Hackett should run again. Ohio use to be a reliable Republican MODERATE state. Yes, the Cincinnati area is the conservative bastion, but it takes the moderate GOP for them to win. Its the moderates that are being run out of their own party. I betcha Independent registered voters are on the rise at the expense of the GOP in Ohio. The more conservative the GOP candidate is, the less likely he or she will win.

Also on Ohio, did anyone notice the Dems cleared the field for Rep Strickland, a centrist Democrat as their choice for Governor by persuading Columbus Mayor to withdrawl. I suspect they will get Hackett to back down on the senate seat and give the nod to Sherrod. Hackett will get tons of money by running against Mean Jean. The National DEmo party cant wait to use that footage of Mean Jean at the national level. ALl it will take is to say that anyone that disagrees with the GOP are characterized as cowards etc. They show the Mean Jean video, Cheney's words, Delays picture and ask one question: Why should we believe the GOP who lied to AMericans in getting us into this war and we should stand up to those such as Mean Jean who question our patriotism. In short, turn the argument back onto the GOP, AMerican can see the truth if it is presented to them in a compelling story, factual video and words, and is truthful in all aspects. Americans have a way of sorting out the truth when presented the truth.

Posted by: db | December 6, 2005 10:36 PM | Report abuse
vivabush, probably should check your numbers at this site.

Posted by: adult | December 6, 2005 8:41 PM | Report abuse

Yes, OH-2 is a Republican district. Bush won it 64-36 in 2004. And Jean Schmidt underperformed Bush, and Paul Hackett outperformed Kerry, by 12 points there in August. Districts don't always elect House members of the same party as the president they vote for. Just look at the Dakotas! Earl Pomeroy (D), Tim Johnson (D), and Stephanie Herseth (D) have held their House seats most of the last decade, but I bet ND and SD haven't voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964. ND has also had 2 Democratic senators for years, while SD had 2 Democrats from 1996-2004. The question is what effect the natural partisan tendencies of CA-50 will have compared to a political climate hostile to Republicans (negative perceptions of the economy, opposition to the war, voters tired of corruption and scandals).

My money is in my wallet.

Posted by: Sandwich Repairman | December 6, 2005 8:01 PM | Report abuse

I know that the voters in the 50th (my district) are thoroughly disgusted by the sleaze and corruption which is so widespread in the Repubs. A lot of them are also becoming aware that we are not involved in a war but a war crime! Our leaders lied to the citizens to get us to allow them to attack innocent civilians. The sooner we elect individuals who are not in bed with the military industrial complex the sooner we will regain our national sanity. Francine Busby is an honest, intelligent, well educated mother who will help congress remember that this is a country "Of the PEOPLE, by the PEOPLE, and for the PEOPLE". As more citizens learn about her attributes the better her chances of being elected.

Posted by: aRuss | December 6, 2005 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Yep, that Koolaid tastes great, ya ought to try it over that Pyncho Cola stuff you got on the left.

My reality check comes from the numbers I posted about the Schmidt win over Hackett. Get some common sense yourself, OH-2 and CA-50 are GOP districts, OH-2 more so. Schmidt wins today she wins in May and November '06.

Froomkin makes a good point, the polls ask different things about the war and are then skewed all over the place whereaas Rassmussen merely asks on a daily basis whether you approve or disapprove of Bush's performance. Bottom line, Bush's numbers are up. It's great how the left puts so much credibility in the polls when they show Bush or the GOP down but once they go up, well, maybe they're not so accurate.

Posted by: vivabush04OH | December 6, 2005 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Personally I've got my money on Bob McEwen.

Posted by: Ohio 2nd | December 6, 2005 2:06 PM | Report abuse

vivabush04 is reading from the FOX and RNC Talking Points (is there a difference). Heard all about the rise in Rasmussen yesterday, all day, from the usual wing nuts. Hey viva, did you read Froomkin yesterday? Or look at pollkatz? Get a reality check, bud!

yo and J. Crozier get my nod for common sense. Add: when the goin' gets tough, the Republicans throw money at it! Was it DeLay that said that...

Posted by: rdrover | December 6, 2005 1:39 PM | Report abuse

As a registered-democrat and a genunine liberal, I echo Tim's comments: This area is conservative, even affluent. Much as I would like to see a democrat win the seat, I don't think Francine Busby has much of a chance. A Paul Hackett type-democrat who ran on a platform of integrity and military service would, but a liberal soft-touch won't.

Posted by: District50Native | December 6, 2005 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't call the analogy inapt but no two districts are the same. All politics really is local. True enough that the Republicans weren't in the trouble they are now during the Ohio special. But the biggest factor in that race was the Republican split along with the eventual nomination of "Mean Jean." She was left in the position of wooing those she just finished offending deeply. In California the Republican field can shake loose a lot sooner than you think. Large fields tend to winnow quickly. If they keep it from getting nasty the Republicans should be odds on to retain that district.

Posted by: matt | December 6, 2005 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Busby doesnt' have a chance. The CA congressional districts are far too unbalanced for her to be competitive. The 50th is one of the most conservative seats in the state. In addition, she hails from the Coast when the districts main population is inland and much more conservative than the coast.

Fact is, this will make good press in Washignton, the Dems will try and make this into a nataional case, but at the end of the day this is a Republican seat, with lots of conservative independents and more than a few conservative democrats. Busby is a liberal, who will be pulled to the left by the outside interests in this race and will in the end lose by at least 15 points.

Posted by: Tim | December 6, 2005 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Vivabush04 stands corrected on the August, 2005 special election between Congresswoman Jean Schmidt and Paul Hackett. The turnout was 25.06%, 114,296 ballots cast out of 456,161 registered voters. It would appear that a good number of Republican voters did not bother to vote but that would not be the case in a 2006 general election. Regardless of who the Dems put up, HAckett or not, and the amount of money they are willing to put up, I have my money on Jean Schmidt.

Posted by: vivabush04 | December 6, 2005 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Actually, 40% turnout is rather high for a special election when nothing else is on the ballot. Even in even-numbered midterm congressional election years, turnout often falls short of that. Presidential elections are the only ones where turnout approaches 50%. For an odd-numbered year with nothing else on the ballot, turnout in the 20-25% range would have been much more normal. That it was so high clearly signals something. I have a good friend in OH-2, and she has her criticism of the national take on the state and district given how deep red it is, but she also agrees that even in that district Schmidt hurt herself by calling a Marine and Vietnam veteran a coward. Schmidt only won by 4 points last summer, I don't think it's hard at all to see Hackett beating her now. I hope he will switch races and challenge her again because I think he has a good shot at winning.

I can't really speak much to CA-50. A 22 point gap does seem like a lot to overcome, but Cunningham wasn't weakened by scandal then as far as I know, so the mere fact that there's no incumbent running ought to help Busby a little. I'd be curious to see primary and general polling on this race.

Posted by: Sandwich Repairman | December 6, 2005 11:47 AM | Report abuse

the low turnout situation that is discussed will be the same in CA with all the benefit going to busby.

Posted by: ross | December 6, 2005 11:44 AM | Report abuse

California's Congressional districts are so gerrymandered in favor of the incumbent party that a win by Busby would represent nothing less than a political earthquake. Don't bet the ranch.

Posted by: Mike 234 | December 6, 2005 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Journalism question, Chris:
In the quote by Forti, "Busby got 36% in the last election. NOTHING has changed in this district..." why is nothing all caps? Was the correspondence by email, or did you want to indicate the speaker's vocal emphasis on the word?

Posted by: Anonymous | December 6, 2005 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Corrupt Republicans in Ohio...corrupt Republicans in California. Yep. I see similarities.

Unfortunately, I also realize that Republican voters aren't exactly flocking away from the Republican party despite the continued barrage of stories showing in painful, intimate detail the corruption and incompetence of the Republican party.

I think a Republican will be elected to follow the Duke in California, thus proving once again that you should never underestimate the power of stupid people in extremely large numbers. Or the power of America's unfortunately short attention span and memory.

Posted by: J. Crozier | December 6, 2005 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Not all politics is local. No matter how much the GOP will try to localize every congressional race, national events (chiefly Iraq) will overtake them. In short, voters won't care as much about the name on the ballot. The party is what they'll be looking for.

Posted by: yo | December 6, 2005 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I live in Jean Schmidt's district. I agree that the Hackett phenomenon is overblown because of the low turnout. That's why it was close--not because of dissention against the war.

One fact correction: At the time, she was a former state representative, having lost a close race for an Ohio Senate seat in 2004.

I'm not a big fan of hers, especially since her famous remarks in the House when all she had to do is research John Murtha's background before putting foot in mouth. But I'd vote for her again against any prospective Democrat --none have made much of a noise yet.

Posted by: Howard | December 6, 2005 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I believe that absolutely anything could happen. This whole county is shellshocked and if they run Bilbray,who far from being a "moderate", will be a lightning rod. I make no real predictions but, this is the first time I can remember since the sixties, such flux.

Posted by: ben | December 6, 2005 10:27 AM | Report abuse

The torturer in chief's popularity is way down, Cunningham has resigned in extreme disgrace (among other Repub scandals), the fundraising situation is much better for the Democrats, Kerry won't be a convenient punching bag for the Repubs to kick around, the Democratic candidate is said to be much improved. The Republican spokesman says NOTHING has changed in Cunningham's district except he won't be running.It sure would be nice to have a reality based political party back in the majority.

Posted by: mike | December 6, 2005 10:17 AM | Report abuse

I don't know if vivabush04 is right, Bush's approval is sinking like a stone across the country, what makes OH-02 so different? No matter how many times Schmidt tries to backpedal and apologize, voters in her district are going to remember that she called a Marine vet a coward. I wouldn't be shocked if she gets a strong GOP primary challenge come 2006.

Busby could be in a great place, especially if the Republicans who want that seat (and there are a lot of them) get into a bloody open primary.

Posted by: Micah | December 6, 2005 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I live in the district. Folks here are fed up with corruption in politics. That should make the difference. This is the home of Camp Pendelton in Oceanside. More than 10% of the 2,000+ Irag dead come from California. We want to bring them home.

Posted by: california_reality_check | December 6, 2005 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Andy is wrong, no way Hackett beats Jean Schmidt today.

In the first place, as a special election, turnout was less than 40% and given the number of GOP voters in the 2nd Dist, had it been a higher turnout, Schmidt would have won in a landslide.

Second, Schmidt's poll numbers have undoubtedly risen given the publicity she received over her remarks on the House floor last month. Folks in her district still back Bush and the troops and do not wish to see a retreat like Murtha and the Dems propose.

Don't look now but according to the latest Rasmussen report, Bush's numbers are on the rise.

"All politics is local."

Posted by: vivabush04 | December 6, 2005 9:53 AM | Report abuse

One thing I would note is that if the Ohio election were held today Hackett would have won. If we are looking at a similar situation then I think the Dems have a very good chance of taking this seat.

Posted by: Andy | December 6, 2005 9:10 AM | Report abuse

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