SAN DIEGO — Voters replacing the disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham were swayed more by party labels and name recognition than boiling issues like corruption and immigration, analysts said Wednesday.
As a result, two familiar faces -- Democrat Francine Busby and Republican Brian Bilbray -- will probably face each other in a June runoff that, for all intents, could look a lot like Tuesday's free-for-all.
Although Busby outdistanced Bilbray, she still faces an uphill fight in a district where Republicans have a 44%-30% registration edge. Still, Democratic leaders claimed victory Wednesday.
They said Busby's first-place finish with 44% of the vote showed the power of her anti-Washington message. Bilbray received 15% of the vote, edging out businessman Eric Roach by about 800 votes, with several thousand provisional and absentee ballots yet to be counted.
"Yesterday, voters in California's 50th District spoke out loud and clear against the Republican culture of corruption," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.
But Republicans said Busby's failure to win more than 50% of the vote and claim the seat outright showed the limits of the Democratic anti-incumbent drive. "If Democrats can't win on a corruption message here, they can't win on it anywhere," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the GOP's congressional campaign committee.
More neutral analysts said the contest failed to say much about what will happen nationwide in November, when control of Congress is at stake. The biggest factor in Tuesday's vote, they said, was whether a candidate had a "D" or an "R" after their name.
"It didn't demonstrate the existence of a wave," threatening Republicans coast-to-coast, said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent elections handicapper in Washington. "But it didn't disprove the existence of a wave."
Amy Walter, a nonpartisan expert on House races nationally, agreed. "Did voters send a message?" she said. "The answer is no."
In the end, Busby received the same percentage of the vote that Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts received in the 50th Congressional District in 2004. "She did about as well as a Democrat is likely to do," said UC San Diego congressional scholar Gary Jacobson, adding, "It would only [send] a message if she were to win."
The election was held to fill the last few months of what would have been Cunningham's eighth term. The former Republican congressman quit and was sentenced in March to eight years in prison for bribery and tax evasion.
Fourteen Republicans were on the ballot, but Busby faced only one other Democrat. The three top finishers proved to be the best-known candidates, two because of their political experience, one because of a massive TV campaign. Busby, a 55-year-old Cardiff school board member, ran against Cunningham in 2004. Bilbray, 55, served on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and formerly represented a nearby congressional district. Roach, 43, spent roughly $1.8 million in Tuesday's election.
Although the count is still unofficial, Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman issued a statement hailing Bilbray's performance. Forti later offered more qualified remarks: "If Bilbray's ultimately the winner, then he will have our full support and we would encourage the other Republicans to get behind him as well."
There will be parallel elections on June 6: the runoff between Busby and Bilbray, and nominating contests for the November general election. Of the 14 Republicans who ran on Tuesday, 10 -- including Roach -- will also have their names on the June primary ballot
Through a spokesman, Roach declined to concede or say whether he would quit the June primary if Bilbray's edge holds when the count is complete.
In an interview, Bilbray said Wednesday he expects immigration to remain the top issue in the race. "People who are in this country illegally are in the streets waving Mexican flags and demanding that our laws be changed," he said. "If that isn't a wake-up call, people are in a coma."
But Busby said immigration is only one issue voters need to weigh. "People right now need to restore trust, after Katrina, a war that is becoming more negative and our enormous debt," she said.
Despite her first-place finish, even Democrats privately conceded that Busby would have to pull an upset to win.
Barabak reported from San Francisco and Perry from San Diego.