The Democrats lost in San Diego last night in a special election many thought they would win. After all, the race was to fill a seat left vacant by a Republican congressman who had to resign when he pled guilty of corruption. President Bush’s approval rating in a California Field Poll this week is around 28% percent (the lowest in that poll’s history since just before President Nixon resigned in 1974). And in the first round of voting, the Democrat, Francine Busby got 44% of the vote and the Republican Brian Bilbray, a former congressman, led a big field of Republicans with only 15% of the vote.
But with 96% of the vote reported, Brian Bilbray has 49.48% of the vote and the Democrat has 45.28% (there are two minor candidates). With a margin of almost 5,000 votes, Bilbray seems certain to win.
So what happened? Why was the Democrat only able to go from 44% to 45%? How did the Republican go from 15% to victory?
Here’s the bottom line: A conservative reform-candidate won in San Diego last night. The result of this election speaks volumes about what will succeed and what will fail for Republicans this November.
This Could Have Been an Unpleasant Morning
Had the Democrats won, this would be a morning of giddy excitement for Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean. Their allies in Washington and across the country would have been energized and Republicans would have been panic stricken. House Minority Leader 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. The left’s columnists and pundits would have filled the airwaves and the newspaper and magazines with predictions of imminent Republican disaster. The DCCC chairman, Congressman Rahm Emanuel, would be on television this morning claiming a harbinger for the fall election. The elite media would have been thrilled at the prospect of a Republican loss of the House this fall. We would have heard the phrase “bellwether election” over and over this morning on the morning shows.
Instead, we had almost no coverage.
This is now a fact.
It is a big fact.
I have lived through this kind of cycle. In 1994, there were two special elections in which Republicans gained Democratic seats. The first was in Oklahoma with Frank Lucas. The second was in Kentucky with Ron Lewis. On the night of the first victory, Congressman Bill Paxon (the NRCC chairman), Joe Gaylord (our planner and adviser) and I sat at the NRCC (National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee) headquarters and decided to go for broke in the much more difficult Kentucky seat. We knew that if we could win two Democratic seats going into the fall election we would create an excitement that would arouse money and energy from our supporters, interest from the news media, and make a fall victory more likely.
It was a courageous decision on Bill Paxon’s part because it meant we were going to invest a lot of our resources into trying to ignite a wave of enthusiasm. It worked. Those two victories were dramatic steps toward the Contract with America and the 53-seat sweep in the fall, which gave us a GOP majority in the House for the first time in 40 years.
How We Won
I know Brian Bilbray. Brian Bilbray was with me in Washington at the beginning of the 104th Congress and was key to implementing the needed reforms of the Contract with America. Yesterday, Brian Bilbray won with a similar agenda of real change. The three dynamics that drove the outcome of this election are all consistent with the pattern of real change outlined in my new paperback edition of Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America.
The first was a determined effort by Brian Bilbray to talk about controlling spending, changing Washington and controlling the border and illegal immigration. Bilbray did not run to “stay the course” and help Washington; Bilbray ran to change Washington. He ran to return to the spirit of 1994 and the Contract with America.
The second was a steady drumbeat by talk radio and the NRCC and the Bilbray campaign to define Francine Busby as a liberal who would raise taxes, increase welfare, and favor amnesty. This had worked well enough that by last Thursday the race was tied 45% to 45% in a public poll. She had gained one point and Bilbray had gained 30 during the runoff.
The third (and most fascinating) was an enormous revelation by the Democrat. At a rally, someone told her (in Spanish) that they were for her but were undocumented (meaning they were in the United States illegally). Ms. Busby responded by suggesting that it was OK for a person in the United States illegally to be active in her campaign. Unfortunately for her candidacy, a Minuteman volunteer in the audience caught her words on tape and gave it to San Diego talk radio hosts. The following day, her willingness to pander to non-citizens became the centerpiece of the campaign and she was on defense for the last five days until the election.
The Democrat explained that she did not mean what she said but her words dramatically focused the difference between a liberal Democrat supporting amnesty and the conservative reform candidate who believes Americans have a right to secure borders. She could not undo the power of her words on tape urging a non-citizen to be active in an American election. It is possible that after Ms. Busby’s comments every undecided voter decided for Bilbray.
There are three big lessons to be learned from the dynamics that drove this election.
- Independence and a willingness to stand up for the folks back home overcame President Bush’s low approval rating. Ultimately, 2006 is not a presidential election and it will not be a referendum on the President if Republicans go home and do their job of representing the values and concerns of the people who elect them.
- Fighting to control the border and defend the American people on illegal immigration (the House position) really works. Amnesty (the Senate bill) was clearly repudiated by Republican voters.
- However dissatisfied Republican voters are with Washington, when they realize the Democrat is a Nancy Pelosi-Howard Dean liberal they turn against them. This means that Republican candidates this fall must be prepared to make their liberal Democrat opponents bear the burden of their positions. The Democrats cannot be allowed to hide their ideology. Remember, the Democrat had 44% in the first round and Bilbray had 15%. Busby couldn’t break out beyond her liberal base. She was simply too liberal.
This can be the story again and again this fall. Republicans are not perfect but liberal Democrats are unacceptable as an alternative.
Finally, people should also note that Congressman Tom Reynolds and his team at the NRCC did their job when it really mattered. They won. By contrast, despite all the recent positive press, the DCCC chairman Congressman Rahm Emanuel and his team invested a lot of resources and lost.
Speaker Dennis Hastert and his team should have a more energetic step the rest of this week.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her team should have a little less energy.
Now let’s see how the elite media attempts to avoid covering this result.