Monday, Oct. 30, 2006 | After months of relative tranquility, the race for California’s 50th Congressional District is finally heating up, with at least one candidate loosening her purse strings and taking to the television airwaves.

On Saturday, with just more than a week to go until the Nov. 7 election, Francine Busby launched a television blitz. Her campaign has also caught the eye of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which indicated late last week it will provide Busby with financial support.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray’s campaign said the congressman has no plans to start a television ad campaign of his own, but observers say national Republican groups will likely come to his aid. The Republican National Congressional Committee has already spent roughly $200,000 in recent months on his behalf.

But with recent polling showing Busby within a few points of Bilbray, political strategists say both candidates have enough cash on hand to wage a television ad battle and expect nothing less. Although both campaigns have shunned intervention from their respective political parties, experts anticipate a scaled-down version of the party financed, multimillion dollar negative advertising campaigns that dominated the June special election.

Last minute television ads could make all the difference in a race that will likely hinge on Busby’s ability to turn out the vote, political consultants say.

Busby continues to maintain a financial lead over Bilbray, according to reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission last week. As of Oct. 18, the most recent reporting period, Busby had roughly $320,000 in her campaign account while Bilbray had $183,000.

“With that amount of money she could flood the airwaves,” said Christopher Crotty, a Democratic political consultant who has directed several state and local political campaigns in North County. “If she does a smart buy, she could be up and running and have a very significant impact.”

While Busby may have the financial lead, Republicans still enjoy a 14 percent registration advantage over Democrats in the 50th District. To win, Busby will have to not only get her party supporters to the polls, but convince the bulk of the district’s independent voters to support her as well.

A solid television ad campaign will be a crucial in an election year in which independents have little to get excited about, Crotty said. With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger leading the gubernatorial race by a wide margin and a bevy of uninspiring initiatives on the ballot, low voter turnout is expected.

“My sense is, to the extent that she has a chance at all, it has to be based on taking advantage of whatever national momentum there is against the Bush administration and the incumbent Congress,” said Tom Shepard, a local political consultant. “I would think her message would be a more national message than what she has done in the past.”

Indeed Busby’s most recent television ad, which debuted this weekend, focuses on the War in Iraq.

While Busby may need every vote she can get, a low turnout could benefit Bilbray. Crotty expects the congressman to air commercials that make the case that the world will be worse off if Busby wins.

“I would expect Bilbray, who is a very smart politician, to go very negative,” Crotty said, adding that negative ads tend to turn off voters and depress turnout.

But Bilbray may have turnout concerns of his own.

Political pundits across the nation are saying the November election has the potential to be the Democratic version of the 1994 Republican Revolution. That year the GOP won 54 seats in the House and took control of Congress.

If that theory holds, it will be because Republicans – demoralized by numerous scandals involving the party’s leadership, the war, an unproductive Congress and an embattled president – don’t show up to the polls, said Paul Worlie, a local Democratic political consultant who has worked on several congressional campaigns.

“That’s typically what you see in these major kinds of party swings,” Worlie said. “It’s [Bilbray’s race] to lose, that’s the bottom line, but if there is a severe depression in Republican turnout there may be cause for concern.”

Crotty said Bilbray can’t take Republican support for granted.

“He’s not real popular among the moderate Republican crowd,” Crotty said. “He’s not from there and a lot of people dislike his illegal immigration jihad so he’s got his work cut out for him in turning out that 14 percent of Republicans who will make the difference.”

Nor can Bilbray assume that Republican’s will turn out to vote for Schwarzenegger and vote for him, Crotty said, noting that voters rejected every candidate that the governor endorsed in the 2004 election.

Schwarzenegger’s short political coattails mean that “a lot of those folks will go out to vote for Arnold and then not vote for anything else on the ballot,” Crotty said.

With so much uncertainty, Worlie said he’s surprised the Bilbray isn’t planning an ad campaign.

“I would think he’d be taking this a little bit more seriously,” Worlie said.

But Crotty said he expects that the Republican National Campaign Committee or another Republican organization will intervene on Bilbray’s behalf.

“There’s no way that Busby would go up on TV positive or negative and Bilbray wouldn’t respond,” Crotty said.

There are other indications that the national parties will once again be involved in the race for the 50th District.

On Friday the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added the race to its “Red to Blue” program, which provides financial and structural aid to the strongest Democratic candidates across the country. The program is designed to expand the fundraising base for targeted campaigns.

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t respond to several requests for comment last week. However, Crotty said he’s been informed that Busby was one of three candidates in California, and several across the nation, who have polled well enough to merit last-minute party support. Crotty said he also expects to see the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fund a series of television ads on Busby’s behalf.

But the party’s help may not be welcome.

During an interview last week, Busby’s campaign manger, Ray Drew, said he didn’t expect to see either party jump into the current race.

“I really don’t expect them to be contributing and I’m actually quite happy about that,” he said. “From the beginning we have maintained complete control of how this campaign is run.”

Drew said he fears that party involvement could lead to a barrage of negative ads similar to those which bombarded voters leading up to the June special election. Both Democratic and Republican interests poured millions of dollars ad campaigns for that race, which was billed as a gauge for the November elections nationwide.

But this time around, the mere fact that the Democrats are paying attention to Busby could be an indication of which way the wind is blowing in the 50th District.

“Political parties and special interests are the major wildcards,” Shepard said. “Their involvement would suggest that the district is in play again and they know something we don’t.”

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