A PACE THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO KEEP UP….I won’t delve into every individual campaign result from yesterday, but the one race on everyone’s radar deserves a closer look.

A former Republican congressman narrowly beat his Democratic rival early Wednesday for the right to fill the House seat once held by imprisoned Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a race closely watched as a possible early barometer of next fall’s vote.

Republican Brian Bilbray emerged victorious after a costly and contentious race against Democrat Francine Busby, a local school board member who ran against Cunningham in 2004.

With 90 percent of precincts reporting, Bilbray had 56,016 votes or 49.5 percent. Busby trailed with 51,202 votes or 45 percent.

Obviously, Democrats had hoped to pull an upset yesterday by winning in a solidly-Republican district. They fell a little short in the end. But for Republicans this morning, it’s hard to spin the results as an encouraging sign of things to come.

It’s very much reminiscent of Jean Schmidt narrowly defeating Paul Hackett is Ohio’s 2nd last year — a race that the GOP was supposed to win easily went down to the wire, and ended up costing Republicans a fortune. Put it this way: if the GOP has to work this hard just to keep ordinarily-safe Republican districts in November, they better raise more money than they’ve ever raised before.

As Stuart Rothenberg noted yesterday, before results were available, “The National Republican Congressional Committee is pouring resources into this race at an astonishing rate in hopes of saving the seat. But the NRCC will not be able to put $5 million into every contest this fall, so a Bilbray victory, if it happens, should not mislead observers into thinking that Democratic prospects in the fall have been exaggerated.”

Ultimately, coming close isn’t good enough, and it’s Bilbray who’s going to take the oath of office. But if this race was a bellwether election, Republicans can’t be at all pleased with how this year is shaping up.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.