Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Spin ain't the same as a win

My dictionary defines victory as "defeat of an opponent," and, to the best of my knowledge and experience, an election victory occurs when one side gets more votes than the other side.

But those little details aren't hindering the Democrats this morning, nor their supporters, as they strive to spin yet another election loss into some kind of victory - moral, Pyrrhic, symbolic, or whatever.

The topic this time is the special congressional election that was staged last night in the suburban California district on the north side of San Diego (for details, see yesterday's post). In this Republican enclave, corrupt Republican congressman Duke Cunningham was recently dispatched to jail, thus necessitating a June 6 contest to replace him. Democrats were anticipating that if their candidate, Francine Busby, could pull off a win, the news would galvanize the political world, demoralize the GOP, and give the Democrats psychological momentum for their bid to topple the Republican majority in the November congressional elections.

Well, it didn't happen. Busby took 45.46 percent of the vote; the victor, Republican Brian Bilbray (who previously served in Congress, in a neighboring district), garnered 49.43 percent. And turnout, among supposedly energized Democratic voters, was reportedly tepid.

But that isn't deterring the losing side. Let the spin begin!

1. Here's Chris Bowers, at the grassroots website MyDD: "No matter what the media says, no Democrat should be mistaken about this result. First, this is a huge, seismic shift in our favor that bodes extremely well for November." In his view, Democrats made great gains because Busby, who lost by 22 percentage points against Duke Cunningham in 2004, lost by only 4.5 points this time around. He notes that the national Republicans pumped big money into this race, and "if Republicans want to spin losing 18 points after spending $4.5 million of committee money as a good thing, go for it. "

2. Here's John Kerry, who had weighed in for Busby during the campaign. He emailed his supporters: "This morning, Republicans are making laughable claims of momentum in the 2006 elections. They (spent big money) to hold onto a seat that they've held since it was created by the GOP, for the GOP 15 years ago. And they eked out a victory by 5,000 votes. Their claims of momentum are as phony as their claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

3. Here's Howard Dean's brother at the grassroots Democracy for America. He too lauded Busby for losing by less this time around, and declared: "If Democrats everywhere improve that much this November, we'll have a Democratic House and Senate!"

4. Here's House Democratic campaign spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg, on the CNN and MSNBC websites: “In an election cycle that is shaping up to be a change vs. the status quo contest, Francine Busby has shown that a strong change message can make even former members of Congress vulnerable in deeply red Republican districts."

Just wondering: Can you win the House by making the victors look "vulnerable?"

I know the drill: Divining silver linings is what spin is all about. After all, Democrats and liberal bloggers are still dining out on last year's special congressional election in Ohio, when Democrat and war vet Paul Hackett almost defeated Republican Jean Schmidt. (Sure enough, a liberal blogger today declared that Hackett would have won the California race.) But building a case for a moral victory requires a certain selectivity about facts: Even though the optimists today are billboarding the fact that the national GOP put big money into the California race, they fail to mention that the national Democrats also kicked in a couple million for Busby.

Ken Rudin, the political editor at National Public Radio, artfully doused the Democratic spin today, writing that "it would be wrong to paint the result as anything other than a victory for the Republicans. Given the national mood, given the fact that their previous incumbent is now spending eight-plus years in the slammer, given the split in the (GOP) over issues such as immigration, given the fact that the pre-election polls had the race dead even, a win is a win is a win."

And let's also remember that an anti-immigrant conservative, with backing from the Minutemen, was also on the ballot, and took four percent of the voters, most of whom otherwise would have probably gone to Bilbray.

The fact remains that these California results again fail to suggest that a great Democratic wave is building. Busby's share of the district vote (45 percent) is roughly the same as what she received in April, during an open primary for the seat. In 2004, while running for president, Kerry won roughly that same percentage inside the district. In 2000, Al Gore won roughly that same percentage. I pointed all this out in April, when I reported on that primary and voiced initial skepticism about forecasts for a big Democratic year.

Bottom line: Busby did not grow the Democratic vote. Yes, there was a high hurdle in a predominantly Republican district, but if a Democrat can't win on the corruption issue in a district where the corrupt Republican incumbent had to go to the pokey; and if the Democrat can't turn a tough district with the wind at her back (Iraq, gas prices, competence, etc.), then I still fail to see how anyone on the Democratic side can presume to have bragging rights today.

On this one, I cede to John McIntyre, a blogger at RealClearPolitics, who wrote, before the returns were counted, that "this is exactly the type of race Democrats are going to have to win at around a 75 percent clip if they hope to net the 15 seats they need to take over the House."