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Republican Bilbray Wins Vulnerable House Seat


Republicans here in California have held on to a hotly contested Congressional seat. GOP candidate Brian Bilbray won a special election yesterday. He'll fill the seat vacated by Republican Randy Duke Cunningham, who's now serving a prison sentence for taking bribes from defense contractors.

Bilbray survived an unusually strong challenge from a little-known Democrat in a race some see as a national bellwether.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Brian Bilbray, who grew up on San Diego's border with Mexico, made illegal immigration the centerpiece of his Congressional campaign. And he said last night he'll make control of the border his top priority once he takes office in Washington.

Representative BRIAN BILBRAY (Republican, California): I think a lot of people talk about scandal being about one person doing the wrong thing, but I think one of the biggest scandals we have is 11 to 12 million illegal aliens in this country while Washington is not doing the right thing. And, hopefully, everybody will wake up to the fact that now - finally, now - we're going to address this problem.

HORSLEY: Bilbray outpolled Democrat Francine Busby by a handful of percentage points, a wider margin than some pre-election polls had predicted, but it's still a relative squeaker in California's 50th Congressional District, where Republicans outnumber Democrats three to two.

President Bush carried the suburban San Diego district by 11 points just two years ago, and Duke Cunningham won his last election by more than 20 points. So even though the seat will remain in the Republican column for the last seven months of Cunningham's term, political scientist Gary Jacobson, of UC San Diego, says yesterday's results show considerable dissatisfaction with the Republican Party.

Professor GARY JACOBSON (Professor of Political Science, University of California San Diego): It's still an extraordinary performance for a Democrat in what is a lopsidedly Republican district. I don't think sensible Republicans will look at it and breathe a huge sigh of relief.

HORSLEY: Democrat Busby managed to energize voters like Kathleen Brooks(ph), who were unhappy with the federal government dominated at all levels by the GOP.

Ms. KATHLEEN BROOKS: I want to shake them up a little. You know, I don't feel like my voice is heard anymore. And as far as the war's concerned, and other things, like Social Security, I feel totally helpless. I don't feel that my voice counts anymore, and that's what America is supposedly all about.

HORSLEY: Both national parties spent heavily on the special election - about $2 million by the Democrats and more than twice that much by Republicans. Even though Busby came up short, she told supporters last night they are making a difference.

Ms. FRANCINE BUSBY (Defeated Congressional Candidate, San Diego, California): We have already made history. People have spoken. This is the biggest shift we have seen. This will send a message across the country that will start a momentum to put wind in the other sails to take us to victory in November.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Ms. BUSBY: Thank you.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Ms. BUSBY: Thank you.

HORSLEY: Busby entered the campaign as a relative novice. Her only government experience is on a small local school board. Senior Editor Amy Walter, of The Cook Political Report, says Busby's relatively strong showing should be encouraging for Democrats, especially in contest with stronger candidates and more evenly divided voters.

Ms. AMY WALTER (Senior Editor, The Cook Political Report): Fundamentally, Republican voters are feeling disengaged and, while in a district like the 50th, there are Republicans to spare. If you're a Republican candidate in a district where you can't afford to lose even two or three percent, this could portend for some difficult times in the campaign ahead.

HORSLEY: Elsewhere in California, moderate Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman easily fended off a primary challenge from anti-war activist Marcy Winograd, winning more than 62 percent of the Democratic vote.

As for Bilbray and Busby, both were winners in their party primaries yesterday, so the two will face off in a re-match in November.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.