CBS Touts Possible Democratic Takeover of House Seat, But Goes Silent After GOP Win

On Tuesday, the day of the election in California's 50th Congressional District to replace imprisoned Republican Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the CBS Evening News ran a story touting a potential Democratic takeover of the seat as reporter Jerry Bowen described the race “as a referendum on both the Republican Congress and the Republican President, whose popularity is sinking.” But after the Republican won, the newscast was silent about it Wednesday night. In fact, the morning after the vote, CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer declared on The Early Show that despite the win by Republican Brian Bilbray over Democrat Francine Busby, the 49 to 45 percent victory is “a warning shot for Republicans.” Busby, however, got just one point more of the district's vote than did John Kerry in 2004.

Schieffer had set up CBS's Tuesday night story about the San Diego County race: "Democrats believe they have a chance to take back control of Congress from the Republicans this year, and they're looking to a special election tonight for a sign that they may be right.” Jerry Bowen trumpeted how “when disgraced Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham went off to prison for taking millions of dollars in bribes, no one predicted what just may happen today as voters in this 25-year-long Republican stronghold pick his replacement: That a Democrat, local school board member Francine Busby, could emerge the winner." (Transcripts follow)

Instead finding some time on Wednesday to inform viewers of the results of what Bowen had framed as a “referendum” on an unpopular President, the June 7 CBS Evening News led with the Marine Commandant's comments on Haditha and Schieffer managed to squeeze in short items on the same-sex marriage vote in the Senate and how the population of New Orleans has shifted to fewer blacks and more whites since Katrina, before a profile of Dallas Mavericks basketball team owner Mark Cuban.

The NBC Nightly News didn't mention the California race on Tuesday or Wednesday and ABC's World News Tonight provided a brief item Wednesday night, though the newscast did not match CBS with a Tuesday preview story. On the June 7 World News Tonight, anchor Charles Gibson read this short item:
"There was a significant congressional election yesterday in San Diego. A Republican won a congressional race with national implications. Democrats said Brian Bilbray's narrow victory in a solidly Republican district shows the GOP faces trouble this fall, but Republicans said all that counts is that they won."

The transcript of the Tuesday, June 6 CBS Evening News story on the day of the election:
Bob Schieffer: "Democrats believe they have a chance to take back control of Congress from the Republicans this year, and they're looking to a special election tonight for a sign that they may be right. It is an election in the 50th Congressional District in Southern California to fill the remaining seven months of Duke Cunningham's term. Here's Jerry Bowen."

Jerry Bowen: "When disgraced Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham went off to prison for taking millions of dollars in bribes, no one predicted what just may happen today as voters in this 25-year-long Republican stronghold pick his replacement."

Francine Busby, Democratic candidate: "People are just dissatisfied."

Bowen: "That a Democrat, local school board member Francine Busby, could emerge the winner."

Busby, waving at cars: "Thank you."

Carl Luna, Mesa College: "It's a sign that the party has some trouble right now. If Francine Busby wins this, it means Karl Rove better start paying more attention to party politics and less to looming indictments."

Bowen: "It's a race that's seen as a referendum on both the Republican Congress and the Republican President, whose popularity is sinking. Recent polls show Busby even or slightly ahead of former Republican Congressman, turned lobbyist, Brian Bilbray."

Brian Bilbray, Republican candidate: "This is a marathon, not a sprint."

Luna: "It doesn't help in this day and age if you're running as a former incumbent and a lobbyist. That's like running as a used car salesman."

Bowen: "The contest has filled local air waves with not just negative but nasty TV ads from both sides. The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $4.5 million in an effort to keep the seat. Vice President Cheney flew in to raise even more."

Vice President Dick Cheney, from May: "I'm proud to join you in supporting Brian's campaign."

Bowen: "Democrat Busby campaigned on the corruption issue. Bilbray took a stand for tougher immigration laws."

Bilbray: "Illegal immigration is the issue."

Bowen: "Which may convince conservatives to turn out despite their differences with him on things like stem cell research and abortion rights, which he favors."

Unidentified Man: "He's doing what will get him votes."

Bowen concluded: "And there is a lot at stake here. But the fact remains this race would not even be close were it not for voter discontent triggered by Duke Cunningham, the imprisoned ex-Congressman who could never say no to a bribe."

On Wednesday's Early Show, the MRC's Scott Whitlock recounted in a NewsBusters item, Bob Schieffer forwarded the post-election Democratic spin.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center