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Experts say Democrats in 50th race seek a lost cause

This story was reported for the San Diego News Network on May 26, 2010.

See original copy of story.

It’s a race that could be considered quixotic by many standards.

Two candidates face off in a primary knowing that the big prize might be unattainable: a seat in the U.S. Congress. That’s because those candidates are Democrats, the incumbent’s a Republican, and the district’s demographics don’t favor an upset.

Of course, it could happen. Look at Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts or Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. But Francine Busby and Tracy Emblem face formidable obstacles, from name recognition to campaign financing to the simple fact of Rep. Brian Bilbray’s popularity.

So why do it? Why run, the odds being what they are?

It’s simple.

“Clearly, they think they can win,” said local political consultant John Dadian. “Unfortunately, most pundits don’t [think they can win].”

Busby and Emblem are working hard to prove those detractors wrong.

Related Links: Elections 2010 | Campaign Corral | Politics | A More Perfect Union

Busby is on her third attempt to snag the seat for the 50th congressional district, a heavily populated Republican-leaning area. She ran two unsuccessful campaigns — in 2004 against Rep. Duke Cunningham, and again in 2006 against Bilbray.

For her part, Emblem is a former Busby supporter. In a past interview with SDNN, Emblem said she not only contributed money to Busby in 2006 but also gave her information about the precincts. But Emblem, the appellate attorney, now says that loss showed her Busby can be beaten, and that she doesn’t think Busby can sway enough voters this time around, either.

A glance at just some of the endorsements….

Francine Busby:

California Democratic Party

San Diego Democratic club

National Women’s Political Caucus

California Labor Federation

California Teachers Association

Tracy Emblem:

California Labor Federation

California Federation of Teachers

California Nurses Association

California School Employees Association

Progressive Democrats of America

See a full list of endorsements for Busby and Emblem are their websites.

In fact, political analysts say no Democrat is likely to unseat the incumbent. It’s a matter of the math. Although the number of Democrats in the district increased 16 percent — from 105,504 in 2006 to 122,274 in 2009 — and the number of Republicans decreased by 371 people to 156,437 in the same period , that’s still a big gap in registration.

According to Dadian, one traditional sign that no Democrat will take over the 50th is that none has financial support from the party. For instance, while the California Democratic Party has endorsed Busby, it hasn’t written her a check. (San Diego Democratic Party Chair Jess Durfee noted that the local party hasn’t put money into any race this year.)

“[Busby’s] not a serious candidate,” Dadian said. “She doesn’t have a chance in unseating the incumbent.”

Chris Crotty, a San Diego-based Democratic consultant who worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, agreed. He said he would love to see Busby or Emblem unseat Bilbray, but that neither will. He’s not even sure why they are running.

“I don’t understand it,” he said. “I didn’t understand the first Francine Busby race in 2004.”

Crotty said if Busby or Emblem want the seat, they would have to get “every single Democrat to vote for them, plus the majority of Independents.”

Then again, the district has gone Democratic in a big way before. Busby and Emblem’s main argument that victory is possible is that the district voted for Obama over Sen. John McCain by 51 to 47 percent.

Emblem called the district “barely Republican.” Busby said that “Bilbray is very vulnerable” because of the changes in voter registration. But both Dadian and Crotty noted that Obama’s triumph in the district occurred in the same year voters re-elected Bilbray.

“What occurred in 2008 is a once-if-you’re-lucky, twice-in-a-lifetime occurrence,” Crotty said. “Francine has run before and has shown that even in the best of times, with all the money in the world, she can’t win.”

According to the Federal Elections Commission, Busby raised and spent about $3.6 million in the 2006 campaign cycle. That far exceeds the $345,253 she has raised for her current campaign. But she’s ahead of Emblem, who has raised only $135,495. Bilbray trounces them both with his $710,911.

Crotty said those dollar figures make clear that Bilbray will win the 50th district.

“That seat was gerrymandered to ensure a Republican would hold it,” he said. “There is a place in the political world for Francine Busby’s, but it’s not in the 50th district… Let’s not waste our time, money and energy on seats like the 50th anymore.”

Hoa Quach is the political editor for the San Diego News Network.