Wednesday, June 7, 2006

The victory by Republican candidate Brian Bilbray over Democratic rival Francine Busby in California’s congressional race to replace Duke Cunningham seemingly boiled down to this: Illegal immigration mattered a lot, ethical problems mattered a little and the campaign skills between the two candidates varied noticeably.

“There is no question illegal immigration was far and away the centerpiece issue in this campaign and was clearly the defining reason for our victory,” Bilbray campaign manager Steve Danon told me on election night. “This should send a mandate message to the White House.”

Mr. Danon’s point is well made when you consider that on California’s election day, President Bush himself was traveling across America selling his support for the McCain-Kennedy bill in highly publicized speeches. Mr. Bilbray opposes McCain-Kennedy. Mrs. Busby supported it.

Francine Busby and the Democratic national party tried valiantly to make this campaign about ethics. The message never caught on. Voters in California’s 50th congressional district were (and are) disappointed over Cunningham’s antics, they feel deceived and let down, but they are not and never have been outraged. Their attitudes seem more philosophical than anything, as in “life happens.”

In an election that was highlighted by low voter turnout, Mrs. Busby herself may have been her own worst enemy. Just days before the election, Mrs. Busby was secretly taped saying the now infamous “You don’t need papers for voting” speech. The Bilbray campaign pounced upon the opportunity with immediate campaign ads, the local media covered the story mercilessly with non-stop airing of the tape, and in the process she appeared to embolden previously apathetic conservative voters — the very voters who had threatened to stay home because of Mr. Bilbray’s moderate views on abortion and gay issues. The San Diego Minutemen, for example, who had endorsed the independent candidate, removed their endorsement of him just days before the election, fearing a Busby victory.

I believe Mrs. Busby’s misstep will go down in local political history as a colossal, memorable one, making a caricature out of herself. But more importantly, she may have painted the entire Democratic Party into a corner on the illegal-immigration issue. Democratic candidates in congressional races across America now must demonstrate they are not pandering to illegal immigrant groups, while at the same time courting their favor — a position Mrs. Busby found herself in days before the election, as her rhetoric became more and more conservative.

While Republican pundits are reveling in the victory and its national implications, the cold hard truth is that Mr. Bilbray’s campaign skills, experience and local relationships had as much to do with the final outcome as anything. Historically, he is a masterful vote-getter — having defeated three incumbents in his career — and enjoys the added advantage of being a well recognized household name in San Diego.

Mr. Bilbray picked up the endorsement of both major newspapers in the district, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sander and even a Democratic mayor in one of the cityies within the district. Illegal immigration championed by a lesser-known or less-experienced candidate may not have yielded the same result.

The final formula for victory in this highly covered race: A conservative message on illegal immigration communicated without gray areas, a well-organized and well-run campaign led by an experienced campaigner.

Rick Amato is a radio talk-show host and political commentator.

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