Thursday, April 20, 2006

California 50: Well, Let’s Not Exaggerate Things

By Stuart Rothenberg

The press releases from national Democrats about last week’s special election to succeed disgraced former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) are so out of sync with the actual election results that I don’t even know where to begin.

“Francine’s dramatic win shows that Democratic, independent and Republican voters simply want change,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said in a DCCC release the day after Democrat Francine Busby drew 43.9 percent of the vote in a crowded open primary to select a candidate to fill Cunningham’s open seat.

“In an overwhelmingly Republican district, the success of Democratic candidate Francine Busby in yesterday’s election demonstrates that the American people want our country to move in a new direction,” echoed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who at least was sensible enough not to use the word “victory” or “win” in her statement to characterize the results of Tuesday’s balloting in California’s 50th district.

Democratic operatives rightly understand that they need to repeat their message of change often if they are to help build a tidal wave of dissatisfaction that leads to Democratic control of the House of Representatives in November.

But it does no good to claim victory when there was none. Busby didn’t win anything except the Democratic nomination, which gives her a place in the runoff.

Contrary to what you may have heard from Democrats, Busby’s 43.9 percent showing doesn’t even constitute some sort of breakthrough for the Democrats in this Southern California Congressional district. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) drew an almost identical percentage against President Bush in the district, and both Al Gore in 2000 (43 percent) and Bill Clinton in 1996 (45 percent) drew a similar percentage of the vote in the district.

Busby did better in the district than did Democrat Gray Davis in the 2002 governor’s race — Davis drew only 37 percent — but that’s hardly an indication of a groundswell of support for the Democrat in the special election.

Busby’s showing appears to be at the upper range of the “normal” Democratic vote in the district. That’s not bad, but it isn’t as good as some Democratic partisans had once hoped.

The DCCC’s release says that Busby’s “dramatic win” [sic] “shows that Democratic, independent and Republican voters simply want change.” Obviously, that’s untrue. There is no other way to characterize it.

If Busby had won more than 50 percent of the vote, and a seat in Congress, the DCCC honestly and accurately would have described the result as a dramatic win. But not when she secures only 43.9 percent of the vote. And any assertions about Republicans’ sentiments, barring some sort of exit poll or empirical evidence from heavily Republican precincts — which may or may not exist — is simply mindless message-spouting.

I’ve tried to figure out why Emanuel, in particular, crowed about the primary results as if Busby had drawn more than 50 percent of the vote. I can’t come up with a reasonable explanation. Why mislead reporters into believing that Busby had indeed “won” the seat — that’s what a couple of astute reporters I talked to assumed when they initially saw the DCCC release — when doing so might raise skepticism about future assertions?

Some Democrats I talked with suggested that since Busby finished first in the primary, the results constituted a “win.” But everyone who follows races knows that the issue in the open primary was whether Busby would reach the 50 percent mark and win the seat outright, not whether she would finish first in the large field.

Some Democrats apparently now want to debate the meaning of the word “win.” You’d think that the party wouldn’t want to go there again.

Anyway, when I checked a couple of the prominent Democratic Web logs, I found them far more realistic than some Capitol Hill Democrats.

Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos was cautious about the results, with many who posted comments expressing some disappointment with the final totals. Chris Bowers on was upbeat about the runoff (too optimistic for my money), but most of the comments posted were stunningly reasonable and realistic.

(What? Rothenberg said something nice about the blogs? Impossible! That jerk spouts the conventional wisdom and defends the views of the morally bankrupt political establishment, especially those myopic insiders and Washington, D.C.-based consultants, doesn’t he?)

So where does the Busby bid stand seven weeks before the runoff? Busby is an underdog but Republicans certainly can’t take this election for granted, and they will have to spend whatever it takes to elect the GOP nominee, former Rep. Brian Bilbray.

GOP strategists already know that this will be a very difficult cycle for them, and the last thing they need is for Democrats to win a reliably Republican seat five months before Election Day. Turnout issues (a Democratic gubernatorial primary could boost Democratic turnout) and the uncertainty associated with any primary (including conservatives’ willingness to support a Republican nominee who’s relatively moderate on some issues) surely give Democrats reason to think an upset is not out of the question.

The DCCC must decide how much to invest in the race. Should it spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to counter what surely will be a GOP media blitz?

Can Busby win? Maybe. Will she win? Probably not. Two things are clear. One, Busby didn’t exceed most expectations. And two, it’s unwise to write her off yet.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 17, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.