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Looking at Bellwether
Race UCSD Political Scientist Analyzes Impact of Bilbray Win

By Ioana Patrigenaru | June 12, 2006

Brian Blbray Francine Busby
Brian Blbray Francine Busby

The attack ads are off the air. The GOP is breathing a sigh of relief, according to the Associated Press. Democrats have said they feel they’ve made some gains, too. Gary Jacobson, a UCSD political scientist and one of the foremost experts on the race, answered questions about the Bilbray-Busby face-off Wednesday.

One of the most contested congressional races of this election season took place in San Diego County. Republican Brian Bilbray and Democrat Francine Busby vied for the seat left vacant by Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham after he pleaded guilty in a corruption scandal. Both Democrats and Republicans watched the race closely, looking for clues about their chances in the upcoming mid-term elections in November.

In the end, Bilbray defeated Busby, the expected outcome in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats. But he failed to get 50 percent of the vote and his margin of victory was a slim four percentage points.

Gary Jacobson, a UCSD political scientist and one of the foremost experts on the race, answered questions about the Bilbray-Busby face-off Wednesday.

Q

What does this mean in the broader context of the Democrats’ attempt to win back the House in November? The 50th congressional district has sometimes been described as a bellwether district.

It would only have been a bellwether if Busby won. This is a very Republican district. The fact that she came pretty close suggests that Republicans are in some trouble. Both sides in a way can take comfort from it. The Republicans can take comfort that they held on to the seat, even with a culture of corruption theme in the background of the race. Democrats can take comfort that Busby got higher percentage of the vote that in past elections. She got the support of people who were unhappy with Washington, the Bush administration and corruption. Democratic turnout was higher than Republican turnout but Bilbray won because there are many more Republicans than Democrats in that district.

Q

Where there any issues that played an important role in the outcome
of the race?

The way Bilbray got enough Republican votes was by using the illegal immigration issue. His problem coming out of the first round of the special election was that he got only 15 percent of the Republican vote and most of remaining votes went to people who are more conservative. So his problem was to win back the conservatives. He used illegal immigration effectively to bring back enough disgruntled Republicans to his side to win the seat.

Q

What effect did the relentless barrage of negative ads have
on the election?

The Democratic base already was pretty energized, just because they are so upset with the national administration. The ads may have energized part of the Republican base. The attacks on Busby on the immigration issue probably helped. The academic literature on whether or not negative ads mobilize or demoralize voters is pretty mixed.

Q

Will Democrats go after this seat again in November?

I think this is basically it, I think this was their best shot. There are 40 to 50 seats in play in the fall. The Democrats have to be thinking: Where are we going to put our dollars? We put all money that we could in this district and we still lost. Therefore, it probably isn’t a good use of our funds to put it here. Republicans will say the same thing to Bilbray: We got you elected, you’re now an incumbent and can raise your own money. There won’t be any competitive House seats in November in California.

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