A former Republican congressman narrowly beat his Democratic rival early Wednesday for the right to fill the House seat once held by jailed Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a race closely watched as a possible early barometer of next fall’s vote.
Republican Brian Bilbray emerged victorious after a costly and contentious special election race against Democrat Francine Busby, a local school board member who ran against Cunningham in 2004.
With 90 percent of precincts reporting, Bilbray had 56,130 votes or 49.5 percent. Busby trailed with 51,292 votes or 45 percent. “I think that we’re going back to Washington,” Bilbray told cheering supporters.
The race — one of dozens of contests Tuesday in eight states — was viewed by Democrats as an opportunity to capture a solidly Republican district and build momentum on their hopes to capture control of the House.
Also in California, State Treasurer Phil Angelides narrowly beat Controller Steve Westly in the state’s gubernatorial primary. With 90 percent of precincts reporting, Angelides had 918,786 votes, or 48 percent, to Westly’s 840,612 votes, or 44 percent.
“You’ve given me a chance to fight for you, for the California of our dreams, and I will not let you down,” Angelides said while his supporters chanted, “Go, Phil, go!”
Elsewhere, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley easily beat back a GOP primary challenge from Ten Commandments judge Roy Moore, while Democratic former Gov. Don Siegelman — who campaigned while on trial on corruption charges — lost his comeback fight against Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley. Also in Alabama, voters passed a ban on gay marriage by a 4-to-1 margin.
Riley said voters saw state government has changed while he has been in office. “People appreciated the difference in the level of corruption we had in the past and the corruption we don’t have today,” he said. His challenger, Moore, the former state chief justice who became a hero to the religious right in 2003 when he was ousted after refusing to remove the Commandments monument from the state judicial building, said: “God’s will has been done.”
Baxley is trying to become Alabama’s second female governor and the first elected in her own right. Alabama’s first woman governor, Lurleen Wallace, was elected in 1966 as a stand-in for her husband.
“There was a time in this state when I could not have stood here, in spite of how hard I worked, because of gender. Tonight proves that is gone forever,” Baxley told cheering supporters.
Siegelman conceded in Birmingham, saying the trial had hurt his campaign. “That’s all everybody has heard about for the last year and a half,” he said.
Another Washington corruption case figured in Montana’s primary, where GOP Sen. Conrad Burns won the nomination for a fourth term. After his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff became known, Burns saw his popularity fall. But he beat several primary challengers and won nearly three-quarters of the vote. His Democratic challenger in the fall will be state Senate President Jon Tester.
In Iowa, the retirement of two-term Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack set off a wide-open race. Secretary of State Chet Culver will face GOP Rep. Jim Nussle in the fall.
Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota also held primaries. Corruption and allegations of corruption _ in California, Alabama and Montana _ crisscrossed the country. Immigration was a campaign issue from the South to the Plains.
Still, the biggest race was the one to replace Cunningham, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking bribes on a scale unparalleled in the history of Congress.
National Democrats spent nearly $2 million on the race; the GOP spent $4.5 million. President Bush and first lady Laura Bush recorded telephone messages for Bilbray, while the Democrats’ last two presidential candidates — John Kerry and Al Gore — urged supporters to back Busby.
Bilbray, made immigration the centerpiece of his campaign, proposing a fence “from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico” and restrictions to keep illegal immigrants from collecting Social Security and other benefits.
Busby focused her campaign on public dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and the GOP-led Congress, and assailed Bilbray for working as a lobbyist in Washington. She consistently referred to him as “the lobbyist Bilbray.”
In New Jersey, Republicans chose Tom Kean Jr., the son of a popular former governor, to challenge Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez in the fall.
A few races brought back some familiar names:
- Jerry Brown — the former California governor, presidential candidate and current Oakland mayor — won the Democratic primary for attorney general.
- George C. Wallace Jr., son of the former Alabama governor, trailed in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor to attorney Luther Strange but the race goes to a runoff because no one got 50 percent.
- Hollywood director Rob Reiner was the leading backer of a measure in California to create a $2.4 billion universal preschool program, which went down to defeat by a 60-to-40-percent margin.
© 2006 The Associated Press