Republicans celebrated a crucial U.S. House of Representatives win in a conservative California district on Wednesday, but Democrats said the narrow margin of victory showed their message of change could be effective in November’s midterm elections.

Republican Brian Bilbray narrowly won a tough battle with Democrat Francine Busby in a special election north of San Diego to replace Randy Cunningham, a former Republican congressman imprisoned for taking bribes.

The race in the solidly Republican district was closely watched for signs that President George W. Bush’s dismal approval ratings and issues like corruption and immigration were taking a toll on the party five months before elections to decide control of Congress.

A Democratic win would have sent shock waves through Washington. But the narrow Bilbray victory — he received just under 50 percent of the vote — gave Republicans at least short-term bragging rights and reinforced their argument November’s elections would be a series of local contests, not a referendum on Bush or the national party.

“The Republicans dodged not a bullet, but a bazooka. Things look brighter for them today,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

“It’s going to be a Democratic year, but will it be the kind of year that produces a victory big enough for them to take control of the House?” Sabato asked. “That’s much less sure today than it appeared to be on Monday.”

Democrats must pick up 15 House seats and six Senate seats in November’s election to claim majorities in each chamber. A sour national electorate and plunging approval ratings for Bush and the Republican-led Congress have fueled Democratic hopes for big gains.

“I think a lot of critics were hoping this would be a kind of a bellwether so they could say the Republican Party and the president are in peril and their hopes were clearly frustrated,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.


Busby and Bilbray battered each other on immigration in what became a rough campaign. Busby tried to tie Bilbray, a former congressman, to the national party’s troubles and corruption scandals.

“It goes back to local politics being a choice between two people,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the House Republican campaign committee. “Busby was wrong for this district on immigration and she was wrong on taxes, and that’s what made the difference.”

But Democrats said the improved showing by the school board official Busby — she won 38 percent of the vote against Cunningham in 2004 but 45 percent on Tuesday — showed their message of change was gaining strength even in Republican strongholds.

“In an election cycle that is shaping up to be a change versus the status quo contest, Francine Busby has shown a strong change message can make even former members of Congress vulnerable in deeply red Republican districts,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee.

Democrats said Republicans spent almost $5 million on the race, nearly double the Democrats’, to pull out the narrow win in a district where they have rarely been challenged.

“I don’t know how they can sustain that effort throughout the country,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said. “While this did not produce a victory for us, it was good news in terms of the closeness of the race.”

But Republicans said moral victories would not give Democrats a majority in November.

“There are no moral victories in American politics — either you win or you don’t,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, chairman of the House Republican campaign committee.

© Reuters 2006