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Will the ‘culture of corruption’ theme fly?

Francine Busby is generating quite a buzz in political circles these days. The 55-year-old mother of two grown children, who is a school board trustee and former adjunct professor of women’s studies, is the Democrat's test case for a political tactic they are hoping to deploy nationwide in this year's mid-term elections.
Francine Busby with former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.
Francine Busby with former Virginia Gov. Mark /

Francine Busby is generating quite a buzz in political circles these days. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a likely Democratic presidential candidate, has headlined a fund-raiser for her; she’s been endorsed by Emily’s List, which raises money for pro-choice Democratic women candidates; and she was tapped to deliver last week’s Democratic radio address on the controversial deal that would allow an Arab state-run company to operate U.S. ports.

All the attention is because Busby — a 55-year-old mother of two grown children who is a school board trustee and a former adjunct professor of women’s studies — is running in the April 11 special election to replace Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the former California Republican congressman sentenced last week to eight years in prison for taking millions of dollars in bribes from defense contractors. And Democrats see the race as a test case for a political tactic they hope to deploy nationwide in this year's mid-term elections: attacking their GOP adversaries for engaging in a "culture of corruption."

“If we do win, it will send a message for change across the country,” Busby said in an interview.

Indeed, Democrats believe Cunningham’s jail sentence and the criminal and ethics investigations hanging over the heads of Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas; Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio; and GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff are a winning issue for the party as it tries to take back the House and Senate in November.

“Like you, I’m fed up with business as usual in Washington,” Busby says in a TV ad. “Send me to Congress, and I won’t tweak our broken system. I’ll shut it down.”

Capitalizing on an anti-corruption message
But it won't be easy for Busby to capitalize on this.

So far, Busby has raised more than $1 million, and she will likely finish first in the April special election, due to a crowded field that includes 14 Republicans, a lesser-known Democrat and two third-party candidates. Yet experts give her only a slim chance of winning the June 6 runoff, mainly because Republicans have traditionally dominated this conservative San Diego-area district. In 2004, President Bush beat John Kerry here, 55-44 percent, while Cunningham defeated Busby — who is making her second run for the seat — by a 58-to-36 percent margin.

“Does corruption make it closer? I think it does,” said Nathan Gonzales, who analyzes elections for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “But Democrats still think this district is tough.”

Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California-San Diego, says it's still a win-win for Democrats. “If they win it, it’s a huge symbolic victory,” he says. “If they lose it, they can say they couldn’t have won it anyway.”

In that sense, the race draws parallels to last year’s special election in Ohio, when Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq war vet, rode the Republican ethics scandals in that state to nearly pull off an upset in a very conservative district. But Gonzales says a key difference between the two contests is that Hackett’s narrow defeat was a complete surprise. “I don’t think this race is going to sneak up on anybody in the way the Ohio race did.”

There are other things working against Busby and the Democrats. Perhaps the biggest, observers explain, is that Cunningham — unlike DeLay and Ney — isn’t on the ballot, which makes it harder to link his misdeeds to the other Republicans in the field. In fact, one GOP candidate, businessman Eric Roach, is already running a TV ad distancing himself from Cunningham. “Congress is in session, and our seat is empty,” Roach says in the ad. “Empty because of corruption and greed.… I want to put an end to the politics of greed.”

“Cunningham is really irrelevant because he’s not on the ballot,” said Carl Forti, a spokesman at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The cynical voter
In addition, polls suggest that campaigning against corruption might not be that effective for Democrats. A recent RT Strategies/Cook Political Report poll found that 61 percent of respondents blame both Republicans and Democrats for corruption in Washington. Fourteen percent said Republicans were more to blame, while 4 percent said Democrats were.

Indeed, Republicans aren’t the only ones with ethics problems: Recently, allegations surfaced that Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., demanded bribes for using his clout to arrange African business deals, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has been accused of using his congressional aides as personal servants.

Yet Busby has an advantage in this race that goes beyond Cunningham’s jail sentence: the crowded and wide-open GOP field. Of the 14 Republicans in the race, analysts say the frontrunners appear to be former U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, former state Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, state Sen. Bill Morrow, Roach and businessman Alan Uke. But with so many candidates running in a special election that normally turns out so few voters, the actual Republican winner who gets to face Busby in a June 6 runoff (assuming no candidate gets above 50 percent next month) is anyone’s guess. 

The benefit of confusion
Here’s another twist that could benefit Busby: The June 6 runoff occurs on the same day as the regularly scheduled GOP primary for this seat. So, if the losers in the April 11 vote don’t end their campaigns, it’s conceivable that the Republican winner of the June 6 primary could be someone different from the winner of the special election. Confused? Republican voters certainly would be.

And despite the district’s GOP leanings, Busby thinks that voters who have sided with Cunningham and the Republicans in the past might be up for grabs this time. “I think they are going to look at the people who are running and what they stand for.”

But Republicans believe that this seat is theirs to lose. “Ultimately, the voters in this district are a fairly conservative lot,” said Bilbray spokesman Dave Gilliard, noting that issues like illegal immigration and taxes are on voters’ minds — not corruption. “It is a hard equation for Democrats.”

Yet Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report contends that an eventual GOP victory in this contest wouldn’t signal that Republicans are bulletproof to “culture of corruption” attacks by Democrats (both DeLay and Ney, after all, still face tough elections). Nor would it suggest that their party is safe from losing seats in November. “If Republicans hold this seat, that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods by any means,” he said.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.