What California's special election means for Democrats and Republicans


I have been predicting that the key factor in the 2006 congressional elections will be turnout. Will Republicans have the advantage in turnout, as they did in 2004, when John Kerry's popular vote was 16 percent higher than Al Gore's while George W. Bush's popular vote was 23 percent higher in 2004 than in 2000? Or will Republicans' disillusionment with Bush and the Republican Congress on issues like spending and immigration, Katrina and Iraq, result in more robust turnout for Democrats than Republicans?

Polls provide only clues. Actual election results provide better evidence. We had one such special election yesterday, the primary contest to replace the disgraced felon Randy "Duke" Cunningham in the 50th congressional district of California. This district covers much of North County (the local name for the northern part of San Diego County) and traditionally has been heavily Republican. Since coastal California trended to the Democrats in the middle 1990s, the district has moved toward, but not yet into, the marginal category. It voted 55 percent to 44 percent for George W. Bush in 2004 and 54 percent to 43 percent for him in 2000. Cunningham won re-election here in 2004 over Democrat Francine Busby, a member of the Cardiff school board, by a 58 percent to 36 percent margin. Cunningham spent $939,000, Busby $212,000—not enough to make her really competitive, but more than a token effort.

California has special rules for its special elections. If one candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, he or she is elected. If not, the leading candidate for each party is that party's nominee in a runoff.

In yesterday's special election, Busby was the only prominent Democratic candidate. Democrats made a major effort to turn out Democratic voters in the hope she could win 50 percent of the vote and capture the seat. They calculated, correctly, that this would represent a huge loss for the Republicans. And it would also suggest that Democrats, if opinion in November should resemble opinion today, would have a significant turnout advantage over Republicans.

The result is, in my view, disappointing for both parties. Here is the vote as currently tabulated by the California Secretary of State's office. Busby won 44 percent of the votes, the same as Kerry in 2004. Another Democrat got 1 percent. The Republican nomination was won by Brian Bilbray, who was elected in the 49th district just to the south (La Jolla and much of the rest of the northern part of the city of San Diego) in 1994, 1996, and 1998 and who lost in 2000 to Democrat Susan Davis. Bilbray won 15 percent of the vote, just above the 14 percent for businessman Eric Roach, who spent $1.8 million of his own money and called for tough immigration policies. Altogether there were 14 Republican candidates, plus a Libertarian and an Independent.

Here are the numbers for the '04 election and for this year's special election, as calculated by me (as always, correction of arithmetic errors is welcome):

Bush 169,935 55.2% All Repubs 68,190 53.3% -1.9%

Kerry 135,007 43.9% Both Dems 57,837 45.2% +1.3%

Others 2,891 .9% Others 1,814 1.4% + 0.5%

As you can see, there wasn't much change in the Republican/Democratic breakdown from the 2004 presidential results. Busby's percentage was 43.9, exactly the same as Kerry's. Overall the number of Democratic voters was up just 1.3 percent. The Republican share of the turnout was down 1.9 percent; other candidates' share was up 0.5 percent.

The bad news for the Democrats: There's no evidence of a substantial turnout surge for Democrats or a turnout decline for Republicans. Total turnout was 43 percent of turnout in 2004, not an unusually low or high figure for a seriously contested special election. The total number of votes for Democrats was 43 percent of the vote for Kerry; total votes for Republicans was 40 percent of the vote for Bush.

So the numbers look a lot like Bush-Kerry 2004—more so than I expected. The current advantages that Democrats enjoy in national polls on the generic vote (which party's candidate for the House will you vote for?) and party control (which party would you like to see control the House?) were not translated into substantial Democratic gains in this district.

The bad news for the Republicans: There was a minor turnout edge for Democrats, and given the closeness of the national vote for the House, any erosion in the Republican advantage is dangerous. Bilbray should probably be considered the favorite in the June 6 runoff, but there is some question whether he'll be able to rally supporters of other Republicans, particularly Roach. A Busby upset is still possible and would be excellent news for Democrats.

The bad news for those who take a tough line on immigration: Eric Roach, after spending $1.8 million, got only 14 percent of the vote–or, to put it in primary terms, only 27 percent of the votes cast for all Republicans. And this in a district that is in a county that sits on the Mexican border and is the site of the North County checkpoint on Interstate 5.

I have to say I was surprised by these results. I thought there was a significant chance Busby would win outright. And that would have been excellent news for the Democrats.