RESULT: Brian Bilbray (R) 50% - Nick Leibham (D) 46%
U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray is on his second tour of duty with the U.S. Congress. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1994. In 2001, he lost his seat to Democrat Susan Davis 50 percent to 46 percent, after voting for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. [San Diego Union Tribune, 10/11/08; Almanac of American Politics, accessed 10/21/08] After his defeat, Bilbray went on to work as a lobbyist for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, "an anti-illegal-immigration group." [San Diego Union Tribune, 6/7/06]He currently serves as co-chairman of FAIR's National Board of Advisors. [Brian Bilbray for Congress, accessed 10/21/08]
Bilbray saw a chance to get back into Congress when the 50th District's representative, Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham, was imprisoned after pleading guilty to evading taxes and accepting bribes. Bilbray won the Republican nomination with 15 percent of the vote against a slate of three more-conservative opponents, who "criticized Bilbray for serving as a lobbyist and claimed his voting record in Congress had been too liberal. Bilbray highlighted his work with a non-profit group that opposed illegal immigration." In the June 6 special election, Bilbray beat Democrat Francine Busby 50 percent to 45 percent, and "Bilbray said that anti-immigration sentiment drove his victory." [Almanac of American Politics, accessed 10/21/08] Bilbray also won the rematch of the race in the November general election, beating Busby 54 percent to 43 percent. [Cook Political Report, accessed 10/21/08] Bilbray has continued to oppose comprehensive immigration reform in his position as chairman of the bipartisan House Immigration Reform Caucus, "and his team cites his work on this front as central to his popularity at home." [Roll Call, 10/17/08]
The 2008 race features a new opponent in Nick Leibham, a San Diego attorney and former high school government and history teacher who served as a congressional aide to Rep. Gary Ackerman, and as a criminal prosecutor with the City of San Diego. [Nick Leibham for Congress, accessed 10/21/08] According to Roll Call, "Leibham campaign spokesman Alec Evans contends that the issue that carried Bilbray to victory in his three 2006 elections, illegal immigration, is no longer the issue of greatest concern to the district's voters." [Roll Call, 10/17/08] However, both candidates say immigration is a vital issue, and both agree that employers who hire undocumented workers should be penalized. [San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/11/08]
On the basis of registration, Leibham has a hill to climb. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, registration in the district favors Republicans 41 percent to 31 percent, but Leibham "sees the district trending Democratic." University of California San Diego political science professor Gary Jacobson was less positive about Leibham's chances for victory. He said that since 1966, Democrats "have never won a district where Republicans had this type of registration advantage." [San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/11/08] Leibham did receive a political boost when 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Vice President Al Gore appeared at one of his fundraisers in September. [San Diego Union Tribune, 10/27/08] And according to a press release posted on his campaign website, Leibham considers Bilbray "a one-trick pony," referencing Bilbray's focus on illegal immigration during a Jan. 8 kickoff party for his campaign.