The downfall of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in a bribery scandal has cleared the way for a surprisingly competitive race for his San Diego County congressional seat, a contest that will test the strength of Democratic efforts to regain control of Congress.
In a poor political climate for the GOP, analysts say, a suburban coastal district of California -- even one that leans as Republican as Cunningham's -- is just the kind that could prove the leading edge of a potential national tide against the party.
Yet Democratic candidate Francine Busby faces a steep uphill battle, thanks to a California congressional map drawn to protect incumbents of both major parties. The district was shaped to strongly favor a Republican, so it would take a major political shift for voters there to put a Democrat in Congress.
And therein lies the trouble for Democrats trying to expand their hold on California's congressional delegation -- and win back control of the House.
The bipartisan gerrymander of the state's congressional districts after the 2000 census all but wiped out competition between the two parties. As a result, none of the state's 33 Democrats in the House faces any viable threat next year from the GOP, strategists say, and only two of the 20 Republican incumbents seem to stand even a slim chance of trouble in November: Reps. Richard W. Pombo of Tracy and, to a lesser extent, David Dreier of San Dimas.
Nationally, independent analysts say that plausible Democratic scenarios for taking over the House assume the party will capture not a single Republican seat in California -- or perhaps just one: Cunningham's. And for Busby or any other Democrat to win a district as heavily Republican as Cunningham's, it would take a political "earthquake," said Gary Jacobson, author of "The Politics of Congressional Elections."
"Republicans will rightly become very nervous if she wins," said Jacobson, a UC San Diego political science professor.
Even if she loses, a strong showing by Busby could still spell trouble for Republicans nationally as the 2006 midterm elections approach. The Iraq war, President Bush's unpopularity, the indictment of top Republicans and other factors have soured the national outlook for the party. Republicans lost the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races last month, and California voters rejected the ballot measures pushed by GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In Cunningham's upscale district, which includes Carlsbad, Encinitas, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Escondido and part of San Diego, history offers Democrats a glint of hope: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein narrowly carried it, as currently drawn, in her 2000 reelection. Another Democrat, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, finished just 312 votes behind her Republican rival there last year.
"If Mars is aligned with the moon just right, yes, a Democrat, on paper, could win this seat," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan election guide. But, he added, "Everything would have to go right for Busby, and everything would have to go wrong for the Republican."
A self-described Encinitas "soccer mom," Busby, 54, is a Cardiff School Board trustee who teaches a "Women Changing the World" class at Cal State San Marcos. She is a former Republican who became a Democrat in the late 1990s, a switch prompted, she said, by the "extreme direction" taken by the GOP.
When Busby first ran for Congress last year, Cunningham easily defeated her, 59% to 37%. At the same time, Bush carried the district over Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, 55% to 44%.
This time, Busby has assets she lacked in 2004, most importantly more money: She has already reported raising nearly $250,000 -- exceeding what she spent on the entire campaign last time. Her endorsement by Emily's List, a national group that pools money for women who back abortion rights, offers a rich source of more cash.
Another potential edge for Busby is the unpredictable nature of any special election for an open seat. In an August special election in Ohio, a Democrat who served in the Iraq war as a Marine reservist fell just short of winning a vacant House seat in a staunchly Republican district.
Working in Busby's favor, too, is the fractured Republican field. Roughly half a dozen Republicans are running in the April 11 election, which could produce a bruised GOP nominee to face Busby in a June 6 runoff that will occur if no one wins more than half the vote. Busby is the only major Democrat on the April ballot.
Cunningham resigned from Congress after pleading guilty last month to taking at least $2.4 million in bribes from military contractors.
Republicans say they are confident they can hold the seat. "Outside of Cunningham's resigning, nothing has changed in this district," said Carl Forti, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.