The race to fill the congressional seat of disgraced former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham is an ugly affair with Democrats confident they will take what once was a solid Republican district.

At stake in the special election on Tuesday is the staunchly Republican 50th district that could go to a Democrat, sending a strong message of discontent with Republicans five months before November’s midterm elections.

Recent polls show Democrat Francine Busby tied with or slightly ahead of Republican Brian Bilbray for Cunningham’s seat after he resigned in November and pleaded guilty to taking more than $2.4 million in bribes. He is now in federal prison.

“If Busby wins, you really have to interpret that as the crest of the tidal wave of voter discontent with a corrupt Republican Congress,” Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn, a grass-roots group that has members making “get-out-and-vote” calls in the district north of San Diego.

Vice President Dick Cheney came to San Diego in late May to raise money for Bilbray. Days later, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain backed out of a Bilbray fund-raiser over Bilbray’s attacks on Busby’s support of McCain’s immigration bill.

Busby has raised over $2.5 million, while Bilbray’s campaign took in about $1 million. Republican and Democratic national campaign committees have inundated the San Diego County airwaves, spending more than $4 million, according to disclosure records.

Residents, unaccustomed to a contentious race after Cunningham handily won eight terms, are getting a taste of tough politics.

“It’s a nasty, nasty campaign,” said Diana Stamm, a La Costa resident who works in the film industry. “They reach new lows every day.”


The Busby campaign refers to her opponent as “lobbyist Bilbray” while Bilbray supporters have television ads that suggest Busby plans to raise taxes and give the money to illegal immigrants.

Bilbray, once a lifeguard and congressman in the 49th district from 1994 to 2000, most recently worked as a lobbyist. He made hard-line views on immigration the center of his campaign.

Busby is a relatively inexperienced politician, having served on the Cardiff school board and run against Cunningham in 2004. She has made cleaning up Congress her main platform.

The district is one of the 10 wealthiest in California with median household income of about $65,000. The average home price is about $570,000 — nearly $200,000 higher than the rest of the state. The population is about 62 percent white compared to 44 percent for California.

Cunningham was a regional icon who lapped up the lifestyle in his home in posh Rancho Santa Fe, where horse stables and golf courses outnumber schools.

“People were really disappointed by Cunningham and it really changed how people feel about this race and Congress,” Stamm said.