Roach clears path for Bilbray

Republican Eric Roach dropped out of the GOP primary in California’s 50th Congressional District yesterday, clearing the way for front-runner Brian Bilbray to become the Republican nominee for the November midterm election.

“It’ll be nice to be able to focus on one campaign at a time,” Bilbray said. The move means his main GOP rival is no longer in the race.

Bilbray will face Democrat Francine Busby in a runoff election June 6, when voters will choose which one should serve out the remainder of the 109th Congress in place of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R). Cunningham was recently jailed in an influence-peddling scandal.

Whichever of the candidates wins that contest will have a big advantage in the election for a full term in November.

National Republicans encouraged Roach to drop out because they were concerned that if he remained in the race Bilbray might beat Busby while simultaneously losing to Roach in the GOP primary. A primary loss would have turned Bilbray into a lame-duck lawmaker for the six months until the midterm.

Roach called Bilbray on Sunday to inform him about his decision, said Stan Devereaux, Roach’s spokesman.

“A loss here in the 50th to a liberal Democrat like Francine Busby would send the wrong signal across our great land,” he said.

Roach had said that his candidacy would rally the conservative base and drive up turnout in the June primary, but Bilbray disagreed, arguing that immigration will be the deciding factor in the race and that television pictures of Hispanics rallying for fairer immigration laws while waving Mexican flags would motivate Republican voters.

“There’s an urgency in San Diego that even the rest of the country has not realized,” Bilbray said.

Nevertheless, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has poured more than $1.5 million into the heavily GOP district. Republican strategists fear that losing the seat would be a harbinger for a Democratic tidal wave in November, and top Republican officials are doing everything they can to keep Republicans unified to make sure Busby loses.

Democratic strategists said Roach’s decision would not alter the dynamic of Busby’s challenge.  

Roach met Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in San Diego on Friday after Hastert hosted a breakfast fundraiser for Bilbray.

Bilbray had flown to Washington last week to raise money. He was even seen chatting with his former colleagues on the House floor.

In late April, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman encouraged Roach to drop out of the race, as did several GOP lawmakers from Southern California, a Republican source said.

Bilbray, who served in Congress from 1994 to 2000, is facing Busby in a runoff after finishing second to her in April’s special-election primary. The district has been without a congressman since Cunningham resigned in November.
 
David Mikhail contributed to this story.