Seat of disgraced 'Duke' is held by Republicans

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An embattled Republican Party has clung on to a key congressional seat in southern California in the wake of a bitterly fought contest. The result is bad news for the Democrats as they try to gain control of the House and Senate in this November's mid-term elections.

The seat, in the affluent northern suburbs of San Diego, had been the uncontested fiefdom of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a conservative former fighter pilot who could rely on solid support in a district in which Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2 to 1. Cunningham, however, was forced to resign last November and is in prison after a bribery and corruption scandal in which he admitted accepting almost $2m (£1m) in favours from defence contractors, including a house, a yacht, several luxury items and hundreds of thousands of dollars in hard cash.

The Democrats sensed an opportunity to score an upset in the race to serve out the last seven months of Mr Cunningham's term, and offered support to their local candidate, Francine Busby, whose campaign placed an emphasis on cleaning up the growing stench of corruption on Capitol Hill.

The Republicans, meanwhile, mounted a rearguard action and flew in numerous party bigwigs, including Vice-President Dick Cheney, in support of their candidate, Brian Bilbray, a former congressman.

Together, the two parties spent about $10m, only to see the seat in California's 50th district follow a predictable demographic pattern. Mr Bilbray took about 49 per cent of the vote, to Ms Busby's 45. This was hardly an endorsement of either Mr Bilbray or the Bush administration - voters in the most conservative parts of the district expressed dismay, even disgust, at the direction the country is taking. Rather, it highlighted just how rigid the country's partisan battle lines and district boundaries are, and thus how difficult it is for any seat to change hands, no matter how unpopular the incumbent.

"The challenge for Democrats is to affirm an agenda that is not only not the Republican agenda but also wins Republicans over to their side," said Rob Richie of the Centre for Voting and Democracy, a thinktank which has tracked the diminishing competitiveness of US election races over the past two decades. "What this election shows is that, even in a relatively good climate for Democrats, a district that should be competitive can be surprisingly difficult to win."

Mr Bilbray was hardly an ideal candidate for the Republicans. He is a professional lobbyist, a dirty word these days because of the scandals involving Cunningham and a whole clutch of other congressmen linked to Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist convicted on multiple counts of corruption and fraud. He is also a moderate on issues like gay marriage and abortion, making him unpopular with the conservative Republican grassroots.

In Escondido, the most conservative city in the 50th district, voter after voter made clear they had to hold their noses as they checked his name on the ballot. "I voted for Bilbray, but my biggest concern is that he will go back to exactly what he was before, the guy making the deals and ignoring the people he's supposed to represent," Gordon Axelson, a civil engineer, said.

Escondido Republicans also revealed a disappointment bordering on rage against the Bush administration on an array of issues from the president's moderate stance on immigration reform to his deficit spending to his failure to pacify Iraq. "I can't wait for him to get out of office," Mr Axelson said.

"We don't have the best person for the job in the White House," Joe Grizzard, a naval veteran, said.

Angry as they were, these Republicans could not bring themselves to vote for Ms Busby, a school board activist on the liberal north San Diego county coast. Ms Busby had counted on a lopsided turnout to see her through to victory. In the end, though, she was sunk by a gaffe on the issue of immigration. It was probably no more than a verbal slip - she appeared to suggest illegal immigrants were welcome to vote for her - but it was enough to prompt a last-minute surge of Republicans and doom her to defeat.