The race to fill convicted California congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham's House seat comes to a head Tuesday, and could likely be a key early barometer into voter anger and a spotlight on illegal immigration.
Cunningham, a seven-term congressman in the 50th district bordering Mexico, resigned last Fall after pleading guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion. He was sentenced in March to eight years, four months and was ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution. Vying to fill out the remainder of his term is Democrat Francine Busby, a local school-board member, and Republican lobbyist Brian Bilbray, who represented the neighboring 49th District from 1995-2001. The 50th district has been a bastion of the Republican party for years.
It's an interesting match-up for several reasons. First, we'll possibly get to see on Tuesday just how deep the anger and frustration is with the current Republican leadership in the wake of the Iraq war, the Katrina failure, skyrocketing gas prices, rampant corruption and Bush's abysmal approval ratings. Will voters rebel as widely speculated and vote Democrat simply because they want change?
Next, the issue of immigration looms large over this election. Busby toes the party line, seeking limited citizenship and guest-worker programs, while Bilbray is more of a House hard-liner who seeks stiff criminal penalties for illegals and law-breaking employers.
What could also be a deciding factor here is Bilbray's moderate positions on abortion and gun control, which blur the social lines between him and Busby, and give life to Independent candidate William Griffith, a conservative who has virtually no chance of winning but who might pull critical votes away from the Republican.
Lastly, if Busby succeeds in turning the 50th blue from red, this could foreshadow Democratic success across the country in November. And this scares the bejesus out of the GOP, which is why they've unleashed their sleazy Swift-Boating campaign against Busby. A National Republican Congressional Committee ad says that "Busby even praised a teacher reported to have child porn, saying she was always willing to lend a hand. That's dangerous. Liberal Francine Busby. Poor management. Poor judgment. Dangerous." The Busby camp is furious.
"This is the most outrageous and slanderous attack I could even imagine," Busby said. "I have devoted my entire life to protecting children and fighting for better education, and to claim that I sympathize with child pornographers is the most despicable low anyone could sink to."
"If Brian Bilbray had an ounce of integrity, he would call for this ad to be taken off the air," Busby spokesman Brennan Bilberry added. "What is even more disgusting is that Brian Bilbray is standing by this ad, which is more evidence that he will say and do anything to protect his pay-for-play ways." The campaign also cited Andy Brown, a Republican member of the school board, who called the NRCC ad "outrageous and untrue."
So what do the numbers show so far? In May, Moore Information, a GOP polling outfit, had Busby holding a 43%-37% lead over Bilbray. Democratic pollster Lake Research has her ahead 47%-40%. And non-partisan Survey USA has it at a 45%-45% dead heat.
With the stakes so high, I suspect the ugliness will reach unimaginable heights by Tuesday.