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Lessons Learned: Francine Busby vs. the Republican Party

June 15, 2006

By Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

When is a loss really a win? It's a common practice, trying to spin a political defeat into a victory. But in the case of the race to fill Randy "Duke" Cunningham's seat in the House of Representatives, the silver lining might not be that hard to find.

The 50th District seat in northern San Diego became vacant when Cunningham, who is now serving time for fraud, bribery and tax evasion, left office in disgrace last November. This week, voters, in fairly low numbers, elected Brian Bilbray to replace Cunningham over Democratic opponent Francine Busby, a dedicated women's rights supporter. Bilbray won by an unimpressive 49 to 45 percent margin. Bilbray, with over $4.5 million, ran ad after ad inciting racial tensions in an already highly-charged debate on immigration.

NOW PAC organizers worked on the Busby campaign, reaching out to voters across the county. The NOW PAC put Hays in San Diego prior to the April 11 Special Election, and sent her and another organizer Monely Soltani there again in late May to work on the run-off vote, held concurrently with California's state-wide primary. Hays, a veteran of many feminist congressional campaigns put her organizing skills to work and rallied voters and volunteers for the race. Soltani, utilizing her bilingual skills, organized phone banks and canvassed in the heavily Spanish-speaking area of Escondito. "After years of being shut out here by the Republican Party, the Democrats finally had some money and a great candidate, and were very energized to elect Francine," said Barbara Hays NOW's Director of Organizational Development and long-time field organizer. "Unfortunately, there just wasn’t a high enough turnout."

In this strange electoral tale, the contest isn't over just yet. The June 6 run-off followed a special election held in April to replace Cunningham for the remaining six months of his current term in the U.S. House. Bilbray's win allowed him to go to Congress to fill the unexpired term of Duke Cunningham—approximately six months. However, at the same time, Busby and Bilbray also each competed in their party's 2006 congressional primary, and they will face off again in November for the congressional district's next term.

Although it is disappointing when a strong feminist candidate loses a close election, there is a bright side to this story. Busby received 45 percent of the vote—15 percent greater than her party's registration. And even in this conservative stronghold, a district that voted 55 percent for George W. Bush in 2004, Bilbray couldn't even garner 50 percent of the votes. Additionally, all the hard work of the campaign will strengthen the organized political movement to counter the right wing in that area. No doubt this newly energized base will result in electoral victories at the local and county level.

The fact that the Republican Party felt compelled to step in to help Bilbray, and ended up spending $5 million on his campaign in the final weeks, not to mention sending an estimated 150-200 "volunteers" (many of them experienced staffers from Capitol Hill) to help turn out the vote, bodes well for our chances in November. With that kind of machinery behind him, Bilbray should have been able to scare up a more resounding victory. If the Republican Party has to prop up all of its candidates to such an extent, even in districts that voted overwhelmingly for Bush, it is clear that there will not be able to raise enough funds to protect enough districts to sustain their majority. It will be interesting to see if the Republican Party is able to duplicate this massive effort in 30 or more contested races across the country next fall.

So, tie these events together and here's what you get—the Republicans had to pay big time just to get a close victory in a district they once owned and thought they could take for granted. While it was an uphill battle for Busby to win, we remain disappointed not to be sending her to Congress this month.

On an ominous note, the immigration issue was used in this district to provoke racial and ethnic tension, and this may be a preview of coming electoral contests. Bilbray's right-wing message to voters was one of "no compromise" on the immigration issue, and in a district bordering on Mexico, this hard-line message apparently resonated with some voters. We fear that Bilbray's win will bolster anti-immigrant sentiments and we will hear a message of intolerance from other Republican candidates in the fall.

To read more about NOW PAC's work to elect feminist candidates, visit our Political Action Committee website and consider donating to our NOW Equality PAC. This summer's Political Institute will be part of the National NOW Conference, July 21-23 in Albany, NY.


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