California Republican Brian Bilbray, who on Tuesday defeated a Democrat whom he had trailed in polls for weeks to win an open House seat, credited his comeback to his tough stance on immigration, which mirrors the stern House bill that would reject any sort of amnesty for illegal aliens.
Conservatives, including potential presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, called the election results a clear repudiation of the Senate bill on immigration, which would offer the 11 million illegal aliens in the United States what amounts to amnesty.
“To the Bush administration, to the Senate, flat out: My opponent ran on your ticket on amnesty; I ran against it, on no amnesty,” Mr. Bilbray said on San Diego’s KOGO radio Tuesday night. “The message ought to be that now, and here, is the time to take care of this problem. … What don’t you get about the word ‘illegal?’”
Mr. Bilbray strayed so far from the Republicans’ Washington leadership that Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is one of the main authors of the Senate immigration bill, canceled a fundraiser last week for him after the candidate publicly attacked Mr. McCain’s plan to grant what some see as amnesty to illegals.
The victory is a rebuke of President Bush’s call for a “guest-worker” program, which would let illegal aliens remain in the country while they apply for citizenship. Mr. Bush regularly says he opposes amnesty but has backed the Senate bill’s approach to immigration, which offers a “path to citizenship” for illegals, over the House’s “security only” proposals.
Mr. Gingrich said yesterday in a column that the California election proves that “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.”
“Look, you’ve had one election since the Senate bill passed,” Mr. Gingrich told The Washington Times yesterday. “You had a person who was pro-illegal immigrant and pro-amnesty; she lost. You had a person who was for controlling the border and against amnesty; he won. In any city in the world except Washington, that would be a hint.
“What the Bilbray campaign proved was, this stuff’s real.”
The White House immediately downplayed the results in California’s strongly Republican 50th District, where Mr. Bilbray ran on the campaign slogan: “Proven Tough on Illegal Immigration.”
“In a case like this, everybody was trying to look for a bellwether,” said Bush spokesman Tony Snow. “Look, it was a close and tight race all along.”
Francine Busby easily finished first in the April nonpartisan primary, winning 44 percent of the vote, while Mr. Bilbray, a former congressman, finished second with just 15 percent of the vote. In the special election, Mr. Bilbray got 48.5 percent, while Mrs. Busby bettered her share in the first round of voting by just one percentage point.
The election splashed onto front pages and flashed onto conservative Internet sites and talk radio over the weekend after Mrs. Busby took a question from a Hispanic man during a campaign event last Thursday.
“I want to help, but I don’t have papers,” the man said in Spanish.
After a translation of the question, the Democrat replied, “Everybody can help, yeah, absolutely, you can all help. You don’t need papers for voting, you don’t need to be a registered voter to help.”
Her statement created a firestorm that drove the conservative base in the district to the polls, Mr. Gingrich said.
“There was a real danger that Republicans would stay home because they were irritated with Washington, and you’ll notice the polls showed Bush at 28 percent,” he said. “Her comments, which were caught on audiotape by a volunteer and played on talk radio, just stopped her campaign in its tracks.”
Democrats were virtually mute yesterday on the 50th District’s election. It took the Democratic National Committee chairman until 4:42 p.m. to put out a statement on the loss.
“Even in California’s 50th Congressional District, where Democrats are outnumbered by 50,000 and Republicans spent $5 million to defeat her, Francine Busby impressed the country by coming within 5,000 votes of capturing a solidly Republican seat,” Howard Dean said.
That mirrored an e-mail to Democrats earlier in the day from Sen. John Kerry, titled “Don’t Blink, Don’t Back Down.”
“Their claims of momentum are as phony as their claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” said the liberal Massachusetts senator, who lost to Mr. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. The rest of the e-mail was dedicated to races in the November elections.
The Democratic National Committee did not return phone calls seeking additional comment.
Mr. Bilbray will serve out the remaining seven months in the term of former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, now in jail for taking bribes while in Congress. On the same ballot as the special election, Mr. Bilbray and Mrs. Busby won their respective primaries for the regularly scheduled two-year term and so will face off again in November.