Wednesday, June 07, 2006

What Can Conservatives Learn from the Bilbray Victory?

Brian Bilbray prevailed over Francine Busby in the race for control of California's 50th congressional seat yesterday. Tony Perry and Rone Tempest at the Los Angeles Times provide some background:

Republican Brian Bilbray beat Democrat Francine Busby to fill the final seven months of the term of disgraced ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in a race billed as a test of whether Democrats can wrest control of Congress from the GOP. In unofficial results released today, Bilbray, a former congressman, took 50% to Busby's 45% in the keenly watched 50th Congressional District. An independent party candidate, who said both candidates were too liberal, got 4%. More than $10 million was spent in the race but the results were similar to well-worn patterns in the district, where Republicans hold a 14-percentage point edge in registration over Democrats. Busby's percentage of the vote mirrors that of John Kerry in 2004, and Al Gore in 2000 in the district that includes the northern part of San Diego and several suburbs.
At 50 percent of the disctrict vote, Bilbray's win didn't really breach majority territory, and considering the high spending and attention the national parties devoted to the race, the results provide a decent window into the nature of the midterm electoral environment in the coming months. Adam Nagourney's story today in the New York Times has more on the implications from the San Diego contest:

The intensity of the contest and the closeness of the result underscored the problems Republicans face in trying to keep control of Congress at a time when many Americans have expressed discontent with President Bush, Congress and the Republican Party. In a normal election year, this district would not even be near the playing field: Mr. Bush defeated John Kerry by 10 points here in 2004, and Republicans have a 44 percent to 29 percent edge over Democrats in voter registration. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent at least $5 million here to help Mr. Bilbray; Democrats spent about $2 million backing Ms. Busby... From a national perspective, the outcome suggests the extent to which immigration could be a critical issue in some contests — in a way that could pose complications for Mr. Bush. Mr. Bilbray directly criticized the immigration program backed by Mr. Bush and the Senate because it includes measures that would allow some illegal immigrants to gain amnesty. He told CNN early this morning that his campaign turned around in this district near the Mexican border, after he specifically distanced himself from that immigration plan, instead calling for a tough enforcement measures that included building a fence on the California-Mexican border. "A president proposing amnesty was absolutely a big problem," he said. "It was not until I was able to highlight the fact that I did not agree with my friends in the Senate or my friend in the White House on amnesty that you really began to see polls changing." At the same time, Ms. Busby was hurt, aides to both parties said, when she was recorded on tape making remarks that made it appear as if she was encouraging illegal immigrants to vote for her illicitly. Ms. Busby denied that was what she meant, but those remarks in the final days of the campaign permitted Republicans to push the immigration issue even harder, at a time she was trying to turn the campaign on the issue of corruption.
At Real Clear Politics, John McIntyre evaluates his pre-election analysis of the national political significance of Francine Busby breaking the 45 percent threshold.

Had Busby materially fallen below the 44%-46% area, that would have been a bad omen for Democratic expectations this fall. Conversely, had she been able to pull off the upset it would have been a major signal that GOP control of the House was in serious jeopardy. Instead, the results are in that middling area where it is neither good nor bad for either party. Another way to look at the results, however, is that they actually reveal an enormous amount about what to expect this fall. And this is the message California-50 may be sending, don't expect big change in November.
Often observers of this year's electoral environment forget to factor in structural variables influencing House races, especially the incumbency effect and the impact of 2000's redistricting. Jim VandeHei and Charles Babbington at the Washington Post have an interesting piece today on how technology is providing incumbents with another built-in advantage:

In Ohio's 1st Congressional District, Republican incumbent Steve Chabot is running up against his toughest reelection challenge in years. But his Democratic opponent is running up against Chabot's computer. In one of the lesser-known perks of power on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are using taxpayer-funded databases to cultivate constituents more attentively than ever. Chabot -- a six-term legislator from Cincinnati who finds himself imperiled this year after years of easy races -- has a list of e-mail addresses of people who are most interested in tax cuts. His office recently hit the send button on a personal message to alert them to the congressman's support for extending tax breaks on dividends and capital gains. Chabot's computer is one factor to keep in mind when assessing the odds that Republicans will get evicted this November from their 12-year majority in the House. Anti-incumbent sentiment, as measured by polls and voter interviews, is stronger than it has been in years. But so, too, are certain structural advantages that overwhelmingly favor incumbents. Some are well known, such as the superior ability of incumbents to raise campaign funds and the fact that most lawmakers come from districts that have been carefully drawn to favor one party. Other benefits -- including the ways that lawmakers are using the latest "micro-targeting" techniques in their official communications -- are more obscure, virtually unheralded beyond the people who use them. "A major reason fewer incumbents lose is we have perfected the use of information technology," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "As incumbents, we have unlimited access to the most up-to-date technology in the world" free of charge, he said. One way to think of this midterm election year, analysts say, is a collision between a wave and a wall. The wave overwhelmingly favors Democrats: an unpopular war in Iraq, job approval ratings for President Bush at record lows, corruption scandals that have engulfed GOP congressional leaders, and polls showing voters favoring Democrats and their positions on the issues by distinct margins. But Republicans still benefit from the wall: a long-term trend that for years has led to steadily fewer competitive districts.

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