Congressman Brian Bilbray won re-election Tuesday night, toppling challenger Francine Busby by nearly 10 percentage points in a race that was marked by animated debate over illegal immigration issues, allegations of criminal grand jury investigations and sparring over stances on the Iraq war.
Although Busby was not yet ready to concede defeat Wednesday morning, Bilbray leads the race 53 percent to 43 percent with 100 percent of precincts reporting.
The congressman made a brief appearance at the San Diego Republican Party's election headquarters at about 11 p.m. Tuesday to celebrate his lead with fellow party members. Bilbray stopped short of declaring victory during a short speech, but said that he is happy with the preliminary results.
"I'm feeling much better than I would be if I was in my opponent's position, let’s just say that," he said.
The historically Republican 50th district was left vacant when disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham he admitted to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and pled guilty to charges of conspiracy. Cunningham, a decorated war hero and Vietnam "Ace," is now serving more than eight years in prison.
Cunningham's downfall gave Busby's campaign the necessary gusto to muster a valiant challenge during a June election against Bilbray, as she stumped largely on the platform of bringing ethics and integrity back to Capitol Hill.
But despite Democrats seizing control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate in the midterm elections, Busby could not convince voters in the 50th district that she was the right person for the job.
Her campaign involved an attempt to paint Bilbray as a member of the Washington establishment, who would pander to lobbyists and special interests. She also assailed Bilbray's morals in October, when she told reporters that Bilbray was the target of a criminal grand jury probe focused on whether he actually lived with his mother in Carlsbad, at the address he claimed as his primary residence.
The allegations drew heavy skepticism from the press and public, as Busby could produce no evidence of a grand jury investigation and, per office policy, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis could neither confirm nor deny whether such an investigation was ongoing.
But on Friday, Oct. 27, 64-year old William Rider, a former U.S. marine and a neighbor of Bilbray’s mother, produced what appeared to be a subpoena during a press conference organized by the San Diego County Democratic Party.
He said that during testimony, he was questioned about whether Bilbray actually lived at the La Costa-home. He told reporters during the press conference that he lives six houses down from Bilbray's mother and has never seen the congressman come to the house.
Bilbray, who owns houses in Imperial Beach and Virginia -- but claimed in his elections filings that he lived at his mother's home in Carlsbad -- maintains that he has no knowledge of such an investigation and that, while in San Diego, he lives with and takes care of his mother.
Meanwhile, officials from the Republican Party of San Diego County asked that a grand jury investigate whether Busby had used illegal immigrants in her campaign.
Bilbray touted illegal immigration as the key issue that won him election in June. It has been, perhaps, the most prominent issue in his campaign and is even featured on the banner of his Web site, which reads "Bilbray for Congress: Proven Tough on Illegal Immigration."
His lead Tuesday came as no surprise to Republicans stationed at Downtown's US Grant Hotel. In a SurveyUSA poll released Monday, Bilbray was leading 55 percent to Busby's 41 percent.
However, the same poll gave Bilbray a narrow 3 percent lead over Busby. He said Tuesday night that the poll was cause for concern, although he is pleased with the results of the election thus far.
"Anybody who tells you that they don't get rattled by all these polls isn't telling the truth," he said. "But the fact is, the poll that matters is the poll that happens on Election Day."