Hawaii’s Dem House candidates pose dilemma for national party
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
Worried about a damaging loss in President Obama's home congressional district, national Democrats are thinking about choosing sides between former congressman Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa in the special election for Congress.
Case and Hanabusa are competing against Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou, a Republican, in a winner-take-all special election in May to fill out the remainder of former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie's term in Congress.
Djou has urged voters to send a message nationally by electing a Republican in traditionally Democratic Hawai'i, similar to U.S. Sen. Scott Brown's surprise GOP victory in Massachusetts in January.
National Democrats are worried that Case and Hanabusa will split the Democratic vote and provide an opening for Djou.
A victory in Obama's home state — the president was born and grew up in urban Honolulu's 1st Congressional District — would be another coup for the GOP and give Republicans momentum for the mid-term elections in November.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats to Congress, declined to comment about whether the committee would pick a candidate.
"The DCCC doesn't comment on the internal workings of the committee. What we are focused on is making sure Hawai'i voters know about Charles Djou's record of supporting corporate special interests over Hawai'i's families," Jennifer Crider, a DCCC spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Several local and national Democratic strategists, speaking privately, said there were conversations early in the campaign about urging Hanabusa to drop out and more recent discussions about the DCCC backing Case.
U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka have endorsed Hanabusa, as have many of the state's influential labor unions, so there has been some resentment locally that national Democrats are meddling in Hawai'i politics.
"They're just nervous," one local Democrat familiar with the talks said. "We've told them to stay focused on Djou."
Several Democrats have privately been urging the White House to intervene because it could be politically embarrassing if Djou were to win. Obama, according to a recent Rasmussen Reports' poll, has a 77 percent job approval rating in Hawai'i and 66 percent of local voters interviewed said they approved of the new federal health care reform law.
A Djou victory would likely be used by Republicans nationally as a referendum on both the president and health care reform, since Djou strongly opposed the law.
"The onus is on the White House," one national Democratic strategist said.
Case, a moderate, angered the party's establishment with his unsuccessful challenge to Akaka in the 2006 primary for U.S. Senate. While traditional Democrats would likely rally around Case if he were to win the special election and the September primary to replace Abercrombie, many are now aligned with Hanabusa for the special election.
Abercrombie resigned to concentrate on his campaign in the Democratic primary for governor. The special election is for the remaining months of his term, which ends in January 2011. His replacement will be chosen in the September primary and November general election.
Even if there is no formal decision by the DCCC to support Case, the talks are a setback for Hanabusa's campaign. Roll Call and CongressDaily, two Washington, D.C., publications that cover Capitol Hill, have reported on the discussions over the past few days.
The talks also coincide with some negative publicity for Hanabusa. She announced on Friday that she was pulling a campaign advertisement that claimed she cut legislative salaries after critics accused her of being deceptive for not mentioning that the pay cuts came after substantial pay raises.
"It's a hiccup," said Eric Hamakawa, Hanabusa's campaign manager, stressing that the Senate president was in the campaign to the end.
Hamakawa said a DCCC representative had previously made assurances that the committee would not choose sides between the two leading Democrats.
"We're very surprised that they would get involved with the race," he said.
Case could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Djou said he would leave it to Democrats to worry about Case's and Hanabusa's chances.
"They can have at it," he said.
"I think we have momentum. We feel really good. We feel really excited about this campaign."