By John Marelius
, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Monday, April 5, 2010 at 12:04 a.m.
On the ballot
Candidates in the June 8 primary election in San Diego County congressional districts:
Republican — Darryl Issa, incumbent; Democratic — Howard Katz, retired IT manager; American Independent — Dion Clark, electronic engineer; Libertarian — Mike Paster (no ballot designation).
Republican — Brian Bilbray, incumbent; Democratic — school board member Francine Busby and attorney Tracy Emblem; Libertarian — Lars Grossmith, mortgage financial adviser; Peace and Freedom — Miriam Clark, retired juvenile probation officer.
Democratic — Bob Filner, incumbent; Republican — Nick Popaditch, retired U.S. Marine.
Republican — Duncan Hunter, incumbent; Terri Linnell, homemaker/mother; Democratic — Connie Frankowiak, political campaign worker; Ray Lutz, engineer/business owner; Libertarian — Michael Benoit, small-business owner.
Democratic — Susan Davis, incumbent; Republican — Michael Crimmins, teacher/military officer; Mari Hamlin Fink, community volunteer; Matt Friedman, business productivity consultant; Mason Weaver, entrepreneur; Libertarian — Paul Dekker, business owner.
Over the past half-decade, Brian Bilbray has proved to be Democrats’ most inviting, and most elusive, Republican congressional target in San Diego County.
Three times in the past four years — including the special election after the resignation of Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham — Democrats have trained their sights on the Carlsbad representative in optimal political climates and come up empty.
Although Bilbray’s Democratic challengers contend he’s ripe for the picking, most experts do not believe the incumbent is seriously threatened this year.
Still, barring a major upset, Bilbray’s is the only one of the five San Diego County congressional districts that is even potentially competitive.
Democrat Francine Busby, who is running for the 50th District seat for the fourth time, contends this is the year Bilbray can be unseated. She noted that President Barack Obama carried the traditionally Republican district by more than 10 percentage points in 2008 after George W. Bush won it by 6 points four years before.
Republican registration in the district — which stretches north and east from northern San Diego to take in Carlsbad, Vista and Escondido — has also been declining from 44 percent in 2006 to less than 40 percent now.
“We’ve seen the changing demographics in this district, and we’re running because we think we can win,” said Busby, a member of the Cardiff school board who faces Escondido attorney Tracy Emblem in the June 8 Democratic primary. “We saw Obama win with over 50 percent of the vote, so we know the voters of this district are trending more Democratic.”
Bilbray campaign manager Duane Dichiara called Busby’s analysis “well-worn and threadbare.”
“She’s made this pitch several times in the past, and voters haven’t responded to it,” he said. “We take the race seriously as we take any race, but Francine Busby is clearly a flawed candidate.”
Bilbray was not available to discuss his re-election campaign. He is spending the congressional recess in Panama repairing his boat, spokesman Fritz Chaleff said.
Emblem contends Bilbray is vulnerable because she expects an anti-incumbent backlash.
“I’ve been talking to people and they’re angry at the status quo, whether it’s the Republican Party or the Democratic Party,” Emblem said. “They’re mad because the people who have been in government so long can’t get the job done.”
Republicans, neutral analysts and even Democratic congressional campaign strategists in Washington aren’t buying the notion that Bilbray is vulnerable.
“He faced challenges in a couple of bad years for Republicans and survived handily,” said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. “So I don’t think he has anything to worry about this time around. Some of these districts have been drifting Democratic, but this looks like a pretty Republican year, so I don’t think it’s enough.”
The other local House members — Democrats Bob Filner of Chula Vista and Susan Davis of San Diego, and Republicans Darrell Issa of Vista and Duncan Hunter of Alpine — represent districts where their party enjoys a huge registration advantage, and they routinely win double-digit election victories.
Democrats have made big gains in Congress in two successive elections. But the pendulum is expected to swing back as the country is gripped by high unemployment and a soaring budget, while wounds from the rancorous health care debate are still raw.
David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said he believes Republicans would pick up 25 to 35 House seats if the election were held today.
“That’s a pretty scary forecast for Democrats because it’s not far from the 40 seats that Republicans need to take control of the House,” Wasserman said.
Unlike past years, Democratic congressional campaign strategists in Washington are not even threatening to target Bilbray for defeat. Rather, they say they will focus their efforts in California against three Republicans: Dan Lungren of Gold River, Ken Calvert of Corona and Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs.
“It’s certainly something that we’re paying attention to,” said Andrew Stone, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “At the same time, our focus is on those three districts.”
Congressional campaign handicapper Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, noted that Bilbray has demonstrated resilience over the years.
“People like Bilbray, they’re tough,” he said. “They’ve been hardened by tough races. They tend not to make mistakes. It’s the ones who skated through all these years that when they find themselves in a difficult environment, they don’t know what to do.”