Wednesday, December 28, 2005 | National Democratic leaders appear to be intently eyeing the congressional seat vacated by former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, sending the signal that the Republican’s corruption scandal could weaken GOP control of what has long been considered a conservative stronghold

Democrats feted their candidate, Francine Busby, in Washington last week with a fundraiser hosted by two of the House’s top Democrats – Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois representative who heads the Democrats’ congressional campaigns arm.

Meanwhile, Busby representatives indicated that contributions had streamed in following Cunningham’s resignation last month, which came hours after he pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting $2.4 million in bribes in connection with the awarding of defense contracts.

Yet the odds are long that Busby, a Cardiff school board member, will take home a congressional district where Republican voters outnumber Democrats by more than 50 percent.

Leading into the run-up to two special elections scheduled for the spring, Busby’s Washington appearance gave her a chance to court potential donors, shine in front of Democratic lawmakers and cement her standing as the party’s acknowledged candidate.

The event, at which Busby addressed the Democratic congressional caucus and was named a guest of honor, according to a campaign newsletter, also may signal that party leaders more genuinely view as winnable the open seat being vacated by a disgraced Cunningham – even in a district commonly referred to as safely Republican.

“We are now a top-tier race,” Busby campaign manager Brandon Hall said.

Money, of course, is needed to win elections. And Hall indicated that the campaign had doubled its war chest for the year in the fourth quarter of the campaign cycle alone. The fundraising leaves Busby with about $500,000, far exceeding the amounts posted by Busby’s announced Republican opponents.

A Busby victory would no doubt be hailed as a positive harbinger for Democrats nationwide as they seek to overturn Republican’s control of Congress in the 2006 elections. It would help to stoke campaign efforts ahead of the fall congressional elections when all House seats, including the 50th again, will be voted on.

The raw numbers, however, suggest that only under exceptional circumstances would a Democrat ever be able to win the district, said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego who follows national congressional races.

“It would be totally unprecedented if she won,” he said, adding that “the odds are really long” for a Busby victory.

Jacobson said Democrats have previously been able to capture seats in Republican districts. But in those cases the Republicans enjoyed advantages of only one-to-three percentage points – much more manageable margins for Democrats to overcome than the current 14-point spread in the 50th.

According to the latest electoral data, Republican voters in the district outnumber Democrats 159,846 to 106,980. Cunningham beat Busby easily, 59 percent to

In the flipped House seats studied by Jacobson, the Democratic winners turned out to be moderate women from coastal districts. Proponents say these votes resemble the present scenario. Busby, who describes herself as a community leader and school board member, hopes to represent a district encompassing much of the North County shore.

Yet Republicans don’t appear overly worried about Busby. The historically very conservative makeup of the district implies a Busby victory would be nothing short of “miraculous,” said Cynthia Vicknair, a Republican consultant.

Vicknair speculated that Busby would have difficulty contending with established Republican hopefuls such as former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian and state Sen. Bill Morrow who enjoy solid political bases in North County.

Moreover, she said, Busby’s lack of legislative experience doesn’t compare well to the résumés of her prominent Republican opponents, including that of former U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray.

Vicknair predicted that in spite of outrage over Cunningham’s criminal behavior, few Republicans will crossover to punish the party, particularly if the eventual Republican candidate is a bland, mildly pro-choice, fiscal conservative who supports gun rights and has no damaging legislative record to run away from.

She added that the registration data should also check Democratic hopes as Busby would have to win virtually all the Democratic vote, she calculated, as well as the entire decline-to-state category (about 22 percent) to come out on top.

“I would be shocked. I simply see no chance,” Vicknair said.

Despite the daunting numbers, Busby supporters nurse the hope of a win and cite the steady drumbeat of bad news emerging almost daily from a low-polling Bush administration as a factor that will propel voters into their camp. Vexing questions on Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and presidential ethics could sway voters come election time, they say.

“We hear every single day that a large percentage of Republicans are willing to cast a vote for the Democrats,” said Hall, the campaign manager.

To win, Busby likely will have to make strong gains among fiscally conservative, well-educated, and socially upscale coastal voters, particularly among well-heeled women who might self-identify as moderate Republicans, UCSD’s Jacobson said.

She will also need to keep the Cunningham scandal uppermost in voters’ minds through the April 11 special primary and, if necessary, up until the special election that is slated for June 6.

(If a candidate wins 50-plus percent of the vote in the primary, they are declared winner of the seat outright. Otherwise the top vote getter from each party will reappear on the special election ballot to determine the winner.)

Keeping corruption on the front burner, Busby has outlined the CLEAN House Act, proposed legislation that would crack down on “all outside financial relationships with government contractors” and eliminate anonymous appropriations from bills, among other goals.

Though, as Jacobson points out, the chances of its passage through Congress by a freshman minority member would be infinitesimal. However, the initiative may double as a stratagem to keep talk about a Washingtonian “culture of corruption” circulating months after charges were filed against Cunningham.

Rob Donnelly is a San Diego-based freelance writer. He can be reached at

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