Hawaii congressional win for GOP would be political hay
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
Democrats will try to spin it away as a fluke, a quirk of a winner-take-all special election that does not reflect the will of a majority of voters.
But if Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou turns urban Honolulu's 1st Congressional District from blue to red on Saturday night, it will give national Republicans a compelling talking point heading into the midterm elections and local Republicans a morale boost after years of frustration.
President Obama's hometown district, in one of the bluest states in the nation, would be represented by a Republican who opposes the president on health care reform, on the federal stimulus package and on extending federal tax cuts for the wealthy.
"I think people who like free markets, people who like less government and more freedom, will be enthused, because they'll see that the message works, even in places that, historically, it hasn't," said Bill Pascoe, a veteran conservative strategist based outside Washington, D.C.
U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Democrats are about to learn a lesson.
"Charles Djou's tremendous success in this race is due to his solid record of lower taxes and government accountability," he said in a statement. "The biggest lesson Democrats will learn from this race is that their strategy of ignoring constituents and forcing on them higher taxes, more debt and wasteful spending will fail this November."
National Democrats are preparing to explain a Djou victory, if it happens, as circumstantial: an unusual combination of state election law and former Congressman Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa splitting the Democratic vote.
But even if Djou does not crack 40 percent, even if Case and Hanabusa keep it close, a loss in Hawai'i would make Democrats cringe.
"We're focused on making sure a Democrat wins this race. And we're committed to doing so," said Frank Benenati, a Democratic National Committee staffer who has been in Hawai'i for the past several weeks to help with voter outreach.
Organizing for America, the grassroots organization that evolved from President Obama's 2008 campaign, appealed to Democrats' pride in an e-mail on Friday urging loyalists to prevent a Djou win.
Three former Democratic governors — George Ariyoshi, John Waihe'e and Ben Cayetano — have scheduled a news conference this morning to plead with Democrats to mail back their ballots.
Djou would be the first Republican sent to Congress to represent Hawai'i in two decades, and only the third since statehood. Despite comments last week that suggested overconfidence, Djou sees himself as the front-runner but does not believe he has the campaign locked up. He is also realistic about his chances in the November general election if he ends up winning on Saturday.
Case and Hanabusa are splitting the Democratic vote in the special election and would have to re-evaluate their strategies for the September primary if they fail to win.
A close battle for second would keep both viable for the primary, but if there is a significant gap between the two, there will likely be pressure from national and local Democrats on the third-place finisher to step aside so the party can maximize resources against Djou.
"I don't take anything for granted," Djou said. "I fully recognize and understand that if I'm fortunate enough to win this seat, I will have to work extra hard to maintain the trust and confidence of the voters of Hawai'i.
"And that's exactly what I'm going to do. I have campaigned on a theme of fiscal responsibility, but also that my priority has been and will always be the people of Hawai'i.
"If I'm blessed to win this seat, I have to follow through and prove that."
ODDS IN NOVEMBER
While Hawai'i has received national attention, the major political parties have directed much more money and staff toward a special election for Congress in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. The western Pennsylvania district was held for more than three decades by the late U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., a former Marine and a national figure within the party, and is considered more of a bellwether for national politics than is urban Honolulu.
The NRCC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on campaign advertisements in Pennsylvania but has stayed off the air in Hawai'i. Instead, the NRCC encouraged Republicans in Congress and GOP donors nationally to make individual contributions to Djou, which helped him gain a fundraising advantage over Case and Hanabusa in the closing weeks.
Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the NRCC, said Republicans did not believe GOP campaign ads would have helped Djou in such a traditionally Democratic district. She also said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spent $314,000 on ads against Djou before pulling out of Hawai'i last week, may have miscalculated.
"Look what it did for the Democrats," she said.
Burgos described Djou as the best Republican prospect in Hawai'i in more than a decade and said he has run an effective campaign, an assessment shared privately by many local Democrats.
In winner-take-all special elections in 2002 and 2003 to replace the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawai'i, the Republicans had no real contenders. Case won both elections.
Djou only reached the second tier of the NRCC's three-tiered "Young Guns" program for top prospects. If he wins on Saturday, he would have to compete for national Republican money and staff resources with other vulnerable incumbents in the "Patriot Program."
If Djou were to win, Pascoe believes several factors might make him competitive in November. A bitter Case-Hanabusa primary could divide Democrats and weaken the eventual Democratic nominee, while Djou would have the chance over the next several months to demonstrate his potential in Congress.
Djou would need to attract a greater share of independent voters and get crossover support from moderate Democrats to hold the seat.
"I am not one of those who thinks this is a fluke and that Charles Djou automatically gets turned out in November," Pascoe said. "I don't think that's a guarantee at all. I think it's quite possible, if not likely, that if he does his homework and does his job right, that he gets re-elected in November.
"And then you've got something really historic."
At the state GOP convention yesterday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikīkī, Republicans said Djou's campaign has brought a new degree of optimism and energy to the party that could spread to candidates for the state House and Senate and Washington Place.
Daryl Smith, a military veteran and the leader of Big Island Republicans, said the enthusiasm behind Djou is helping the party with recruitment. "It's helping a great deal. That, and just what's happening in Washington, D.C., period, is helping us," he said.
"You have to follow the excitement," he said. "You also have to be faster to move forward when the other guy is tripping himself."
Chris Wong, a young marketing consultant running for the Honolulu City Council, said Djou's campaign is based on core conservative values that he believes many voters find reasonable.
"Charles has very clear, set values, and it is in line with the core conservative values of the party," he said. "In the political environment that we have, it just makes sense.
"I believe the values that we hold as candidates are, I guess you can say the voice of reason, more in line with what the people want, and need, at the moment."
Many national and local Democrats believe the party would shrug off a Djou victory and rebound in November. But several party activists are warning that it may not be as easy as some may think to turn the district back to blue.
"I think we're too glib when we say that Democrats are temporarily split — or tactically splitting the vote right now in the fluke of a special election — and that come November we're going to all reunite after a primary behind one candidate and then defeat him with the traditional margins," said Bart Dame, a progressive activist.
"I think that's overly simplistic."