Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 | U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray appears to have handily won reelection to the House but his opponent, Francine Busby, said she won’t consider conceding the race until all of the votes are counted.

Bilbray, who beat Busby in June to replace disgraced former Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham, was favored to win this race by most political observers. Bilbray secured 54 percent of the vote compared to Busby’s 42 percent, with 72 percent of precincts reporting as of press time Tuesday night.

Despite Busby’s statements, CNN and The New York Times called the race in Bilbray’s favor.

The congressman was accepting of Busby’s decision not to acquiesce but confident nonetheless.

“That’s her right,” Bilbray said after declaring victory during a speech at the U.S. Grant hotel. “What really matters is who gets sworn in on the first week of January. Just like who got sworn in June.”

But Busby, who was down by more than 17 percentage points when the first absentee votes came in Tuesday evening, said she won’t make any announcement until Thursday at the earliest. That’s when Mikel Hass, the county Registrar of Voters, expects to start counting paper, provisional and late absentee ballots.

“It’s hard to make a definitive decision when the Registrar of Voters is saying that the votes won’t be counted for a couple of days,” Busby said.

Part of the delay in tallying the votes stems from the countywide deployment of new electronic voting machines for the first time this election. That prompted local Democrats and election watchdog groups to urge voters to request paper ballots.

Busby said that her own ballot was mistakenly counted as provisional after she requested a paper version. Her vote won’t be added to the official total until the Registrar of Voters verifies that she’s an eligible voter.

Voting machines malfunctions at numerous polling locations also forced many voters to manually register their opinions via paper ballots and Busby’s campaign claimed that some precincts had reportedly run out of ballots.

In the days leading up to the election, the Registrar of Voters also ran out of absentee ballots and was forced to send out photo copies, which will take days to manually transfer to official ballots by hand.

Ray Drew, Busby’s campaign manager, said he believes that the absentee returns reported Tuesday night only reflect about half of the total number of those cast.

“Either this is the lowest turnout historically or absentee voters held onto their votes and delivered them by hand,” Drew said.

While Busby may be waiting for all of the votes to be counted, she faced an uphill battle and a post-Election Day comeback seems unlikely.

Additionally her reticence to concede postpones what would have been a return to normalcy in the 50th District, a Republican stronghold that reliably supported disgraced former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham through eight terms in the House.

The district’s political landscape was upended in June of 2005 when the congressman’s illicit real estate dealings came to light. Cunningham resigned after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes and tax evasion in November.

Tuesday’s vote marks the second congressional election in the district this year, as Bilbray prevailed over Busby in a June special election to complete Cunningham’s term.

Busby, a member of the Cardiff school board who ran against Cunningham in 2004, launched her 2006 campaign days before the congressman’s transgressions made headlines and quickly emerged as a frontrunner in the race to replace him. With voter outrage fueling an anything-can-happen atmosphere, she made ethics reform in Congress the main plank in her campaign platform.

On the Republican side, Bilbray, a former Imperial Beach mayor, county supervisor and congressman in the neighboring 49th District from 1995 to 2001, brought name recognition and plenty of baggage to the race.

A lobbyist who registered to vote from his mother’s Carlsbad address 11 days after Cunningham’s first housing deal came to light, Bilbray was criticized for carpet bagging and being a cog in the process that Cunningham exploited.

Yet Bilbray’s run couldn’t have been better timed. A staunch opponent of illegal immigration, his candidacy came on the heels of a divisive congressional debate over immigration reform that sparked mass marches across the United States and considerable media coverage. With immigration at the forefront of the public’s consciousness, Bilbray’s hard-line stance helped him bridge a rift with the district’s more conservative Republicans, many of whom saw him as too moderate on social issues.

In the April primary of the special election, Bilbray emerged with 15 percent of the vote while Busby secured 44 percent. Bilbray split that vote with a crowded Republican field, while Busby had little competition from within her party.

With Busby showing potential heading into the June general election, which also served as a primary for November, political pundits quickly billed the June runoff as a harbinger of a Democratic retaking of the House in November.

Democratic and Republican interests turned their attention to the 50th District and poured more than $7 million dollars into the campaigns, which devolved into a nasty television ad exchange.

In the end, Bilbray grabbed 49 percent of the vote to beat Busby with 45 percent. He returned to Washington to serve out the remaining six months in Cunningham’s term while Busby stayed behind to lick her wounds and start planning for November.

Considered a long shot candidate from the start in a district where Republicans enjoy a 14-point registration advantage, Busby’s chances of success in November were further reduced by political prognosticators after the Democratic Party, which poured millions into Busby’s June campaign, focused its financial support elsewhere.

The conventional wisdom was that she had her taken her best shot in the June special election and missed.

On her own this time around, Busby attempted to capitalize on a growing disapproval among the national electorate toward the Republican-led Congress and President Bush. Like Democrats across the country, Busby focused largely on the war in Iraq and the numerous political scandals that rocked Congress in recent months.

“She should have focused on national issues back in June,” said Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.

In the closing weeks of her campaign, Busby accused Bilbray of being the subject of a criminal grand jury investigation. She said Bilbray made conflicting statements in official documents regarding his primary residence. Bilbray owns homes in Imperial Beach and Virginia and lives with his mother in Carlsbad.

For his part, Bilbray ran a low-key campaign, hardly acknowledging Busby’s challenge. His campaign’s website hasn’t been updated since May and he declined several opportunities to face Busby in public debates.

The few televised debates that did occur quickly turned to mudslinging.

Yet Bilbray’s tough stance on illegal immigration, his advantage of incumbency the Republican registration advantage and financial support from the GOP proved too potent for Busby to overcome.

“There’s too many … Republicans in the district,” said Jack Orr, a veteran North County Republican political consultant and close friend of Bilbray. For Orr, Bilbray’s victory is a sign that the district is behaving politically as it has in the past and that Republicans have reasserted control there.

That assessment wasn’t lost on Democrats. Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said even the few months Bilbray’s had in office have increased his prominence in the community.

“He’s an incumbent now,” he said. “You would expect an incumbent to do better.”

Orr and others expect that Bilbray will continue to strengthen his position in the district.

“He’ll start to consolidate the incumbent advantage, and barring something bizarre in the next two years, he’ll start to enjoy the benefits of a Republican district,” Orr said. “Two years from now he’ll win by a minimum of 60 percent of the vote.”

As for Busby, she’s already hinted that she would like to stay involved in district politics but her career as a congressional candidate seems to have reached its end.

“She’s a three-time loser,” said Luna. “I can’t imagine her making another run.”

Please contact Daniel Strumpf and Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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