updated 12/7/2005 2:22:54 AM ET 2005-12-07T07:22:54

A GOP state lawmaker won a special election Tuesday to fill a vacant congressional seat in traditionally conservative Orange County after a race that featured a bitter debate about national immigration policy.

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California state Sen. John Campbell will succeed Republican Christopher Cox, who represented the district in the House for 17 years before resigning to head the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“We didn’t take anything for granted, but you’ve got to be ready to win,” said Campbell, who will be sworn in Wednesday evening in Washington.

With more than 50 percent of precincts reporting and absentee ballots counted, Campbell had 35,719 votes, or 48 percent, followed by Democratic candidate Steve Young with 20,532 votes, or 28 percent, in one of the most reliably Republican districts in the nation.

Third-party candidate Jim Gilchrist, a founder of the Minuteman Project border patrol group who made illegal immigration the centerpiece of his campaign, was third with 16,422 votes, or nearly 22 percent.

Spotlight on immigration
The race placed the spotlight on national immigration policy at a time when the issue threatens to divide the GOP.

Gilchrist, a retired accountant and former Marine, did not break the GOP hold on the district, but he managed to increase his share of the vote significantly since the October primary, when he collected 15 percent in a crowded field.

Gilchrist complained Campbell did not go far enough to curb illegal immigration. Gilchrist called for sending thousands more personnel to patrol the nation’s borders and ports.

The immigration issue resonated with voters frustrated with a growing population of illegal immigrants in suburban Orange County.

Gilchrist, a former Republican running under the American Independent Party banner, had hoped his showing could push federal immigration policy to the forefront in next year’s congressional races and influence the 2008 presidential campaign.

Campbell acknowledged the immigration debate but said “it’s not the only issue, and I think that’s the key message here.”

Two other candidates were also on the ballot: Libertarian Bruce Cohen, a real estate broker, and Green Party candidate Bea Tiritilli, a schoolteacher. Both received less than 2 percent of the vote.

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