Election Entrails

Trying to divine meaning from a single House election.

Tuesday, Republican Brian Bilbray beat Democrat Francine Busby in a conservative district north of San Diego. The political class has inspected the results like primitives poring over yak entrails to divine some meaning about the likely effect of the president’s dismal approval ratings, and issues like corruption and immigration, on the November elections. Democrats claimed a “moral victory” for doing well in a Republican district. Republicans issued macho boasts after barely hanging on to a safe seat. But it’s empirically silly to draw big conclusions from a single race—these really come down to each party’s wishful thinking. Still, politicians and strategists who spend their days chasing votes have a hard time casting them aside as meaningless, so they won’t be able to resist letting the results in California yesterday shape their behavior over the next five months. Here are some conclusions they could draw:

1.The Republican victory is a blow to comprehensive immigration reform. House Republicans are opposed to President Bush’s call for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. They call that amnesty, and Bilbray did in his race, too. In a speech Wednesday, Bush argued that the House majority should moderate its hard line because the “American people want something to happen” and only through compromise will a bill pass Congress. The president is offering theory, but House members are more likely to embrace a truth they see in Bilbray’s victory: Running against the president’s immigration plan works. “It wasn’t until I was able to highlight the fact that I did not agree with my friends in the Senate or my friend in the White House on amnesty that we really saw the polls start supporting me strongly,” Bilbray told CNN.

2.Republicans should stop moping. The national landscape still looks grim for the Republican Party. Voters think the president is doing a lousy job and that the Republican Congress is, too. The Iraq war is unpopular, and even in the unlikely case that conditions get better voters aren’t likely to know it by Election Day. But Republicans who have been muttering to themselves in the smoking lounge have a reason to smile now, and that may have a lasting benefit. The GOP didn’t need all the bad news to be reversed on Tuesday. They just needed enough evidence to keep believing in the talking points they’ve been repeating to themselves. Now Republicans can plausibly argue that the dynamic of a specific race, which poses a choice between two candidates, can overcome the horrible national climate that could make the upcoming election a referendum on the unpopular president. They can also feel good that their tacticians, through hustle and hard work, could pull off a victory.

3.The culture of corruption isn’t selling. There was no better district in America in which to test the Democratic theme that Republicans in Washington deserve the boot because they’re corrupt. Democratic candidate Francine Busby called the district “ground zero in the debate over the culture of corruption.” The former Republican congressman whom the race was held to replace, Duke Cunningham, is in jail for taking cash and maybe hookers from defense contractors. Busby’s opponent, Bilbray, was a lobbyist, a job-title-turned-epithet in this campaign season because of the indictment of disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Yet though Busby regularly referred to Bilbray’s lobbying, she couldn’t make the sale. Perhaps this ratifies the polling data that shows that more than 70 percent of voters think there isn’t much difference between the parties when it comes to ethics and honesty.

Smart Republicans won’t overinterpret these results. The victory was a nail-biter on friendly turf. The party had to spend lots of money and bring the president in for the lowly duty of making robo-calls. Wise Democrats won’t stop playing to people’s genuine and reasonable disappointment with the GOP-controlled Congress.

In the end, whatever conclusions the parties draw, the real lesson of the Bilbray victory may be that the structural rules of politics hold: Money and districts drawn to maximize party advantage will help the party in power. That won’t keep the GOP from losing seats, and it won’t make the next five months pretty. But it’s a glimmer of hope for a party whose expectations have dropped so low that merely retaining control of Congress will be trumpeted as a great victory.