Immigration Issue, Demo Gaffe Save GOP in San Diego Race

A major last case of the Democratic nominee mis-speaking on illegal immigration and the resultant furor was key to the Republicans retention of California’s 50th U.S. House District (San Diego) in the special election last week. While the San Diego-based district had been historically carried by most Republicans by margins of 23% and the worse Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham managed for re-election margins was 56%. But in the race caused by Cunningham’s resignation after pleading guilty to bribery charges earlier this year, moderate Republican Brian Bilbray held on by a margin of 49% to 46% against Democrat Francine Busby (the remainder went to two independent candidates).

The results could have easily gone the other way and, up to  five days before the June 6th balloting, the Bilbray-Busby contest was almost universally regarded as “too close to call.” But, in remarks to senior citizens at the Joslyn Senior Center in Escondido, Busby responded to a Spanish-speaking man who said he didn’t have “papers” but wanted to know how he could help with her campaign.

“Everybody can help, yeah, absolutely, you can all help,” Busby replied, according to a 40-minute audiotape of her remarks obtained by the anti-illegal immigration “Minute Men” (who had endorsed an independent in the race) and released to the local media, “You don’t need papers for voting, you don’t need to be a registered voter to help.”

The resultant media report of her remarks in the San Diego Union Tribune and local talk radio provided momentum to Bilbray and put the Democratic hopeful on the defensive.  Roger Hedgecock, former San Diego mayor and the most popular area talk show host, repeatedly charged Busby with trying to encourage illegal immigrants to vote.  On Saturday, voters in Republican households answered their telephones to hear recorded messages from Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Cal.) of the neighboring district say he “was appalled” by reports of Busby urging non-citizens to vote and urge support for Bilbray, who, he says, “takes the right position on illegal immigration.” (Possibly sensing a Bilbray win, the National Republican Congressional Committee finally deployed President Bush in the special election, as GOP homes were blitzed with recorded messages featuring Bush calling on support for Bilbray because he was an ally in the war on terrorism).

Tracking polls taken on the eve of the balloting showed Bilbray taking the lead over Busby. The Democratic nominee admitted over the weekend that she had “misspoke,” and told reporters that “anyone here illegally does not have the right to be here, does not have the right to vote, does not have any right to be part of the electoral process, and illegal people shouldn’t be working on a campaign.”

“She went into that room to recruit people to work for her campaign,” fired back Bilbray, who represented a neighboring district in Congress from 1994-2000 and had worked as a lobbyist for an anti-illegal immigration group in Washington, “Nobody tricked her into saying that.” Bilbray called for tough border security measures and firmly opposed the guest worker program favored by Bush and John McCain.

In an e-mail to “undisclosed recipient[s]” obtained by us after the voting, the San Diego Minute Men claimed credit for the Bilbray win. “Congrats, guys!” went the e-mail, “A huge victory for the Minute Men and for America! I must mention there are nine brave patriots from SDMM that had a hand in this success story in acquiring the recording. I can’t mention your names this time, but you know who you are. Great job!!”

“Those remarks really hurt Busby and may have caused her to lose,” according to former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, one of three conservative runners-up to Bilbray in the primary for nomination to the special election. Kaloogian noted that Hedgecock’s salvos and the Issa calls on Busby’s remarks “really  hurt her.” But he quickly added that “the race should not have been this close and had we nominated a conservative, we would have won easily.” The former legislator noted that “Brian’s pro-choice stand and weak record on the right to keep and bear arms in Congress led many natural Republican allies to take a walk.”

For now national Republicans were just relieved they had dodged a potentially lethal bullet in an uncertain election year.  As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich put it, “If the Democrats had won in San Diego, their DCCC chairman Rahm Emmanuel would be on television this morning claiming a portent for the fall election and their House leader Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi would be on the phone to every major donor explaining what their victory meant and why it justified more resources for the fall campaign.”