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In Hawaii, intraparty feud may cost Democrats a seat in Congress

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By Philip Rucker
Friday, May 7, 2010

HONOLULU -- Across the country, Democrats are on the defense, laboring to put out political fires sparked by angry voters and emboldened Republicans. Even Hawaii, the bluest of blue states, where a Democratic machine has controlled politics for the five decades since statehood, has become a dangerous hot spot for the party in power.

But here's the catch: The Democrats started this fire themselves.

Democrats here might lose a House seat in a special election this month because of a feud between two candidates that has inflamed tensions within Hawaii's ethnic voting blocs and between the state's Democratic establishment and the party's national leaders.

The result could be a victory by plurality for the GOP candidate. That would upend Hawaii's political order and, like the recent Senate race in Massachusetts, simultaneously hand Republicans a compelling narrative of Democratic defeat -- this time in President Obama's birthplace.

"It's a nightmare for Democrats," said Dan Boylan, a University of Hawaii history professor.

There is no primary to replace Neil Abercrombie, a 10-term congressman who resigned to run for governor. So the race in Hawaii's 1st Congressional District will be decided in a winner-takes-all election on May 22.

For weeks, the two leading Democrats -- state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and former congressman Ed Case -- were locked in a dead heat with Republican Charles Djou, but a new poll shows Djou pulling ahead in the 14-candidate contest. He led with 36 percent of likely voters in a Honolulu Advertiser poll released last Sunday, followed by Case at 28 percent and Hanabusa at 22 percent.

Neither Democrat has shown signs of bowing out. The national party has not publicly endorsed a candidate but believes Case has a better chance of winning. The White House this week leaked to reporters an internal memorandum by pollster Paul Harstad concluding that the seat is "more likely than not to fall into Republican hands" and that Case is "the only candidate" who can beat Djou.

Hanabusa dismissed the pressure from Washington and told supporters on Wednesday: "I'm in this race until the end -- and I'm in this race to win."

Djou's supporters were just as bullish when they gathered for a fundraiser one recent evening overlooking Waikiki Beach. Djou, a Chinese American City Council member, said a victory in this overwhelmingly Democratic district could add to the GOP's momentum heading into November's midterm elections.

"The American people want to know: Do the people of Hawaii want more of the same, or do they want something different?" Djou said. "The mantra in Washington is 'Spend, spend, spend, and if that doesn't work, spend some more.' Well, enough is enough with the spending."

A different election

Despite some similarities, the Hawaii contest is unlike January's Senate election in Massachusetts, where Scott Brown, a little-known GOP state senator, rode a wave of discontent and "tea party" support to win the late Edward M. Kennedy's seat. Here, the tea party movement is hardly visible, and voter anger seems confined largely to the Republican base, traditionally about 30 percent of the electorate.


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