Learn the right lessons

Pundits, spinners and legitimate analysts of the left and right have been working overtime since last Tuesday’s election in California’s 50th Congressional District to draw lessons from the election of a Republican lobbyist who had to move into the district to run for the seat vacated by former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) as Cunningham was spirited off to the pen.

Pundits, spinners and legitimate analysts of the left and right have been working overtime since last Tuesday’s election in California’s 50th Congressional District to draw lessons from the election of a Republican lobbyist who had to move into the district to run for the seat vacated by former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) as Cunningham was spirited off to the pen.

More than a dozen Republican candidates sought the nomination, which Brian Bilbray won with something like 15 percent of the primary vote.

Bilbray is a moderate on everything but immigration. He angered most of the activist right in the district and barely avoided a primary challenge for the fall contest (he won the special last week to fill the remainder of the Cunningham term but will be on the ballot in November as he seeks a full two-year term). Moreover, he represented a different district during his previous time in Congress and has been working as a lobbyist since. All of this adds up to a less-than-attractive profile.

He was, of course, running in a Republican district carried by the president just a year and a half ago, but then so are many of the GOP incumbents being targeted this year by Democrats convinced that Bush’s low poll ratings and the “culture of corruption” they like to say he brought to Washington are more important than demographics and past election results.

And he had a lot of money. Special elections tend to attract a lot of money, and this one, because Republicans were afraid of the panic that might follow if Bilbray lost, was no exception. Of course, the Democrats and their liberal allies, sensing the possibility of an upset and salivating at the consequences, poured just as much money into the campaign of their candidate.

When Bilbray managed to win by a bit more than 5,000 votes, Republicans breathed a sigh of relief. They managed to dodge a bullet, or at least this particular bullet, for three reasons:

• First, GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman proved once again that he has assembled a team of professionals that can focus on and deliver Republican voters to the polls even in bad times.

• Second, Bilbray managed to latch on to the one issue that could overcome all else. That of course, is immigration, and he managed to turn the campaign from a referendum on corruption, Iraq or even Bush to one on immigration policy. In the process he took on the Senate majority and the Bush administration itself and got into a tiff with Teddy Kennedy’s buddy John McCain. It worked.

• Finally, Bilbray and the Republicans benefited from the fact that today’s Democrats continue to insist on helping them. They managed to nominate Francine Busby, a feminist liberal who many Democratic professionals feared might not be a very good fit in a Republican district .

Busby was from the wealthiest and most liberal part of the district. As she mobilized her party’s left to win the nomination back in April, Carl Luna of Mesa College in San Diego worried to NPR that “her hope is that the more liberal, academic environmentalists on the coast would flock to her banner, but she seems to hit about a 38- to 42-percent ceiling.”

Luna and the professionals were right. Busby also managed to help Bilbray make immigration the issue, and when it was all over managed to get just one percentage point more of the vote than John Kerry polled against Bush in 2004. In other words, in spite of all they had going for them, their candidate managed to win the Democratic base vote and not much more.

Politicians have a habit of taking the wrong lessons away from most elections, however, and if Republicans who breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday think the fact that Bilbray won means they have less to worry about this fall than they’d feared Tuesday, they will be making a huge mistake.

Even Democrats have a learning curve and would seem to be capable of learning from their mistakes. They can be expected to run better campaigns with better candidates in some districts this fall, and they could be running in an atmosphere in which public disdain of incumbents and politicians in general jells into a focused dislike of Republicans. That hasn’t happened yet, but in 1994 the voters didn’t focus their hostility exclusively on Democrats until early October.

What Republicans should take away from the Bilbray experience is that they shouldn’t panic, because with the right issues, the right mechanics and just a little help from the folks who run that other party they will be in the game until the end. 

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm ( www.carmengrouplobbying.com).