California's CUs Help Republican To Win Congressional Seat

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Republicans, with critical assistance from area credit unions, last week were able to hold on to the state's 50th House seat when credit union-backed Republican candidate Brian Bilbray narrowly won a race widely touted as a key indicator of November's mid-term congressional elections.

Bilbray, a long-time credit union ally until his defeat in the 2000 elections, won almost 50% of the vote in this heavily Republican district that had long been held by Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the disgraced congressman who was sentenced to prison three months ago for his federal conviction on corruption charges.

Bilbray eked out a win over Democrat Francine Busby, a local school board member who lost to Cunningham in 2004 by a 49.5% to 45% margin. Observers saw the race as an early indicator of the electoral mood, five months before the national elections, with a record $25 million poured into it from both Republicans and Democrats.

"I think it was a great night for credit unions," said the California CU League's congressional lobbyist Ryan Donovan, the day after the vote. "We had a lot of our folks who were deeply invested in this race."

Bilbray, who has been a congressional lobbyist since his 2000 House ouster, had a long record of support for credit unions and was among the first sponsors of HR 1151, the landmark 1998 CU Membership Access Act. "He was a very reliable support of credit unions when he was in the House," said Donovan.

Credit unions weighed in heavily, with CUNA contributing the maximum $15,000 (an extra $5,000 because it was a special election); and area credit unions First Future CU ($3,250); Orange County Teachers FCU ($1,000); Wescom CU ($1,000), as well as North Island CU CEO Michael Maslak ($1,000); Mission FCU CEO Ron Martin ($500); Evangelical Christian CU CEO Mark Holbrook ($2,000); First Future CU CEO Marla Sheppard ($1,250); San Diego County CU CEO Rod Calvo ($1,000) and Point Loma CU CEO Ted Dennis ($2,000), all contributing to Bilbray's campaign.

Several credit unions, including First Future CU, held fundraisers for Bilbray, while First Future CU also mailed postcards to members endorsing the GOP candidate.

The race was seen as an early battlefield for control of Congress, which some observers think may shift to Democrats after November's mid-term elections. The Cunningham conviction, coupled with a prevailing unpopularity of Congress was supposed to give Busby an advantage. But she ended up doing little better than she did when she lost to Cunningham in 2004.

Both political parties saw it as a major precursor to the mid-term elections. The Republican Congressional Campaign Committee thought so much of the race that they poured more than $10-million into it in the final six weeks, according to records filed with the Federal Elections Commission. And the Democrats poured in almost $7 million. And the final disclosures are not in yet, likely bringing the spending figures much higher.

In a strange quirk, both Bilbray and Busby also won separate primary elections the same day and, as a result will face off again in November for the full two-year term of the House seat.

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