LOS ANGELES—A former Republican congressman narrowly beat his Democratic rival early Wednesday for the right to fill the House seat once held by imprisoned Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a race closely watched as a possible early barometer of next fall’s vote.
Republican Brian Bilbray emerged victorious after a costly and contentious race against Democrat Francine Busby, a local school board member who ran against Cunningham in 2004.
With 90 percent of precincts reporting, Bilbray had 56,016 votes or 49.5 percent. Busby trailed with 51,202 votes or 45 percent.
“I think that we’re going back to Washington,” Bilbray told a cheering crowd of supporters.
The race—one of dozens of election contests in eight states—was viewed by Democrats as an opportunity to capture a solidly Republican district and build momentum on their hopes to capture control of the House.
Still, the biggest race was the one to replace Cunningham, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking bribes on a scale unparalleled in the history of Congress.
National Democrats spent nearly $2 million on the race; the GOP spent $4.5 million. President Bush and first lady Laura Bush recorded telephone messages for Bilbray, while the Democrats’ last two presidential candidates—John Kerry and Al Gore—urged supporters to back Busby.
Bilbray, made immigration the centerpiece of his campaign, proposing a fence “from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico” and restrictions to keep illegal immigrants from collecting Social Security and other benefits.
Busby, a local school board member, focused her campaign on public dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and the GOP-led Congress, and assailed Bilbray for working as a lobbyist in Washington. She consistently referred to him as “the lobbyist Bilbray.”