The scrimmages are ending, and game time is near. In the rough and tumble world of congressional politics, sides are being chosen. The whistle is about to blow for the real contests that will decide if the Republicans keep their majorities in both chambers of Congress, or if the Democrats take the trophies back.
Nowhere has the early focus on the elections been more intense than in the recent special election in California's 50th Congressional District, home of the deposed and disgraced Randall "Duke" Cunningham. Cunningham's bribery-induced occupational shift to laundry room chores in federal prison opened the door for early Democratic momentum in the 2006 congressional races. The former fighter pilot was the poster boy for the Democrats' election theme of the "culture of corruption" in Congress brought on, they alleged, by "too many years of Republican control."
Unfortunately for the Democrats, they did not open the season with an impressive result. Their candidate, Francine Busby, made her third attempt to win the seat and again came up short. Her opponent, Brian Bilbray, seemed perfect for the Democrats' election strategy. He is a former congressman who lost to a Democrat in an adjacent district several years ago, and then he went on to a career as (gasp!) a K Street lobbyist in Washington. Bilbray won the Republican primary with only 15 percent of the vote and did not instill much excitement in the Republican rank and file. However, he won the seat, and his win is cooling down some of the rabid speculation in the mainstream media about the impending "rout" of the Republicans next fall.
Bilbray won for two reasons, and the political operatives in both parties and the White House should pay close attention to them.
Bilbray ran squarely against President Bush and the Republicans in the Senate on the issue of immigration, a subject very close to the hearts of voters in the 50th District. He unabashedly supports the construction of a border fence from "the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico." That message resonated better than Busby's support for the Senate approach, which would result in de facto amnesty for many illegal aliens. The political operatives reading the tea leaves in Bilbray's victory should recognize that there may be no immigration bill coming out of Congress this year, because too many members of the House will view Bilbray's win as a confirmation of how the public supports their "strong enforcement, no amnesty" approach.
But there is another message coming out of the 50th District race. It is a primordial one in politics: You can't beat something with nothing. Busby had lost twice before, and there were obviously some reasons why the district had not sent her to Washington. The handpicked theme of the "culture of corruption" that the Democrats field-tested in the race came up a loser. The Democrats need to find things to sell that voters believe the Democrats can deliver on, issues that have real relevance in their lives. Unfortunately for the Democrats in this case (and perhaps others to come), one of those issues is immigration, an issue on which they remain out of step with the country. President Bush should also learn that lesson, or he may have more Republican candidates running away from him on issues such as immigration and fiscal responsibility.
One race in one district does not make an election. The Democrats still might gain control of Congress, but they won't unless they stand for issues that the voters perceive as meaningful. Neither party has a lock on a congressional majority at this point.