WASHINGTON—Republicans won a much-watched California special election Tuesday for an open U.S. House of Representatives seat, sending a signal that they can still win and might be able to hold control of Congress this fall even though national polls show them in deep trouble.
Republican Brian Bilbray defeated Democrat Francine Busby in a contest that both parties treated as a test of message, issues and political machinery for November's congressional elections. Bilbray won 49-45 percent.
The bottom line: Republicans held the seat in the solidly Republican suburban San Diego district despite a major push by Democrats to take it—but they had to spend more than $4 million to do it, and their vote dropped from past elections.
But if anger and anxiety over Iraq, gas prices or immigration is creating a throw-the-bums-out mood across the country, as national polls suggest, the California election suggested that it hasn't swelled into the kind of tidal wave that would sweep Republicans out of safe districts.
"The Republicans ducked a bullet," said independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who closely watches congressional races in his Rothenberg Political Report. "But there's still a dark cloud there."
The special election filled the seat left vacant by Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's resignation after he pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes.
Democrats had hoped to make the race a touchstone of their national effort to tar Republicans for a "culture of corruption" in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Republicans countered with a campaign stressing a get-tough approach to illegal immigration. They capitalized when the Democratic candidate made a last-minute blunder by telling a predominantly Latino audience that "you don't need papers for voting."
"The results in San Diego show that nothing has happened to alter the notion that House elections are about a choice between local personalities focused on local issues," said Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y., the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the political operation for House Republicans.
"National Democrats did not discover their shockwave in San Diego. National Democrats must come to terms with the fact that momentum for the midterm elections will not materialize simply because they preordain it in the media or because they ask their special-interest friends to buy it for them."
Democrats said they showed how weak the Republicans were by forcing them to spend heavily and by cutting the district's Republican vote to 49 percent from 2004, when 55 percent voted for President Bush and 58 percent for Cunningham.
"If Republicans see a similar five-point drag on performance in districts around the country, more than 30 competitive Republican seats will see Republicans candidates falling below the 50 percent threshold come this November," said Ellen Malcolm, the president of the Democratic group Emily's List.
"It showed that a strong campaign for change can turn even a reliably Republican district competitive," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
He noted that Republicans sent congressional aides and others to help in the district, and he said 55,000 more district voters are registered as Republicans than Democrats. Burton said Republicans won't have as large a registration edge in many other districts this fall, including for Republican-held seats in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"If Republicans have to spend $5 million and airlift 200 people out there, they're not going to be able to do that in the 40 to 50 districts that will be truly competitive this November," Burton said.
"Why not? Why can't we?" countered Carl Forti, a spokesman for the NRCC. "We'll have a monetary advantage. This tells me the Democrats don't know how to win."
While outspent, Democrats also poured resources into the race. The party spent about $2 million there and dispatched people from Washington and elsewhere to help turn out the Democratic vote.
Also, about 1,460 volunteers from the liberal group Moveon.org Political Action made more than 55,000 telephone calls into the district to try to turn out votes, the group said.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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