Hawaii holds special election for House seat; Democrats expect loss in Obama's birthplace

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; 11:29 AM

Democrats are bracing for the loss of a House seat Saturday in President Obama's birthplace of Hawaii, where a special election in a heavily Democratic district has inflamed tensions within the party.

Republican Charles Djou has been leading in recent public polls in the winner-takes-all contest -- largely as a result of a feud between two Democratic candidates that has splintered their party's base. A Djou victory would break the Democrats' long winning streak of special elections and hand the Republican Party a symbolic victory in its bid to regain control of Congress.

There were no party primaries to replace Neil Abercrombie, a 10-term Democratic congressman who resigned to run for governor, so Saturday's election features 14 candidates. Whoever gets the most votes wins.

The two leading Democrats, state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and former congressman Ed Case, have been fighting for months, with neither candidate willing to bow out of the race in the interest of party unity.

Seizing the opportunity, Djou appealed to voters' concerns about the federal deficit, striking an anti-Washington tone in an effort to become only the third Republican ever to represent Hawaii in Congress.

"I've centered my whole campaign on my approach to fiscal responsibility and government accountability, and I think that's resonating with the electorate, even here in Hawaii," Djou said in an interview Friday. He added, "For a long time, there's been a feeling that this seat is wholly owned by the Democratic Party. I have been hitting hard on the theme that this is not a seat that is owned by any political party or union or special interest group. This is a seat owned by the people."

The election will be decided by mail-in ballot. About 50 percent of the 1st Congressional District's 317,000 registered voters had returned completed ballots as of Friday, according to state elections spokesman Rex Quidilla. Voters have until Saturday to return ballots, and the results will be announced Saturday night (after midnight Sunday on the East Coast).

Political observers in Hawaii said the campaign has been nastier and more expensive than any congressional election in recent memory, with television advertisements flooding the airwaves in recent weeks.

"Oh, mother of Joseph!" said Dan Boylan, a prominent commentator on state politics. "I don't think I've ever seen as many attack ads in any election in Hawaii. . . . They defined themselves early and just kept repeating it: [Case] was the moderate Democrat, [Hanabusa] was the union-supported more liberal Democrat and [Djou] was the Republican who had never voted for a tax hike."

National Democrats have all but ceded the race. After repeated unsuccessful efforts to persuade one of the Democrats to quit -- the White House even leaked an internal memorandum concluding that the seat would "fall into Republican hands" with both Hanabusa and Case in the race -- officials in Washington effectively waved the white flag.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which had spent more than $300,000 on television advertisements attacking Djou, decided earlier this month to stop spending in Hawaii. "Unfortunately local Democrats were not able to work out their differences," DCCC spokesman Andrew Stone said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the DCCC chairman, told reporters this week that the party is falling victim to "unique circumstances" in the special election. He predicted that Case and Hanabusa together will garner more than 50 percent of the vote in Saturday's election, a sign that a Democrat could win in November's general election when there will be a single nominee, determined in the Sept. 18 primary.

"I can confidently predict that the Democrats together will get a majority of the vote, just like the Democratic candidate in November will get a majority of the vote," Van Hollen said.

Democrats have won the last six House special elections, including Tuesday's race in Pennsylvania to replace the late Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha. National Republicans hope a victory in Hawaii, even without a majority of votes, can provide the party needed momentum heading into the fall.

"The fact that we have an opportunity to win in President Obama's childhood district, where he received 70 percent of the vote in 2008, speaks to the quality of Charles Djou's candidacy and the level of Republican voter intensity across the country," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee. "Democrats can try to spin this all they want, but a loss in President Obama's hometown district would be a tough pill to swallow."

The race has been awkward for Democrats. Obama recorded robocalls earlier this month to drive up Democratic turnout, but the president did not mention a candidate, merely asking Hawaiians to vote for "a Democrat." Three former Hawaii governors staged a news conference last weekend to urge voters to support one of the Democrats, but did not single out a candidate because their allegiances are divided between the two.

The campaign has strained relations between Hawaii's most powerful politicians and Democratic leaders in Washington. In the five decades since statehood, Hawaii's politics have been controlled by a Democratic political machine, run by Sen. Daniel Inouye and powered in part by labor unions.

Hanabusa is the hand-picked candidate of Inouye and Sen. Daniel Akaka. Hanabusa has won the endorsements of Hawaii's labor unions, yet she has been trailing in third place in all recent polls.

Hanabusa has touted her relationships with Inouye and Akaka, saying that she is uniquely suited to work with them to bring federal investments to Hawaii.

"They are both portraying this inability to work with the congressional delegation as a sign of independence," Hanabusa said in an interview last month. "That's not a sign of independence. . . . You're not running for this office to serve yourself. You're running to get a job done."

Meanwhile, Case, who represented the 2nd Congressional District from 2002 to 2007, remains within striking distance of Djou, according to polls. Case has run as an insurgent, railing against the Honolulu establishment and touting his independent streak.

"Folks want change, but not just any change," Case said in an interview Friday. "It's not change just swinging across the ideological spectrum. That's not the change that folks want. They want a change that brings independent, consensus-based problem-solving to D.C."

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