RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. – A former Republican congressman led in early results Tuesday in a closely watched House race that was being seen as a barometer of voter attitudes ahead of the midterm elections.
Former Rep. Brian Bilbray was leading Democrat Francine Busby in the solidly Republican San Diego-area district about 30 miles north of the Mexican border. The immigration debate and a GOP corruption scandal dominated the campaign for the House seat held by Randy “Duke” Cunningham before he went to prison for bribery.
Tuesday’s victor will serve the remaining seven months of Cunningham’s term.
With 11 percent of precincts reporting in absentee voting, Bilbray had 20,448 votes, or 51 percent, compared with 17,329 votes, or 43 percent, for Busby.
Busby, a local school board member who ran against Cunningham in 2004, focused her campaign on public dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and the GOP-led Congress.
Democrats spent nearly $2 million on the high-stakes contest, and the GOP spent more than $4 million. President Bush and first lady Laura Bush recorded automated telephone messages for Bilbray. A mass e-mailing from Sen. John Kerry, the party’s 2004 presidential candidate, was sent last week to more than 100,000 supporters, urging them to help get out the vote.
Cunningham’s downfall threatened to upset the electoral balance in this longtime GOP stronghold, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 3-to-2. Cunningham pleaded guilty last year to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and was sentenced in March to more than eight years in prison.