Obama's Hawaii birthplace gives House seat to GOP

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; A02

Republican Charles Djou was elected to fill a vacant House seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic Hawaii district where President Obama was born and raised, handing the GOP a symbolic victory in its bid to retake control of Congress.

Although a Democrat has represented the Honolulu-based 1st Congressional District for nearly 20 years, Djou's win came as no surprise. With no primaries before Saturday's winner-takes-all special election, two Democratic candidates -- state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and former congressman Ed Case -- fought for months and splintered their party's base.

Djou, a Honolulu City Council member, won 39.4 percent of the vote, Hanabusa finished second with 30.8 percent, and Case was third with 27.6 percent. Djou will finish the term of longtime Democratic congressman Neil Abercrombie, who resigned to run for governor.

But Djou's tenure may be short-lived. He will face voters in November's general election, and Democrats said they were confident they would recapture the seat then, when the party would have just one nominee running.

Nevertheless, Djou's win provides Republicans a jolt of momentum. It breaks the Democrats' two-year streak of winning House special elections, including Tuesday's race in Pennsylvania to replace the late John P. Murtha (D).

In his victory speech, Djou echoed Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who in January shocked many by winning a special election to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy (D).

"This is a momentous day," Djou told supporters. "We have sent a message to the United States Congress. We have sent a message to the national Democrats. We have sent a message to the machine. The congressional seat is not owned by one political party. This congressional seat is owned by the people."

Djou, 39, will become the second Asian American Republican in Congress. Djou, a lawyer and an Army reservist, is the son of immigrants from China and Thailand. He is a graduate of Punahou School, the same Honolulu prep school from which Obama graduated.

Djou ran a disciplined campaign centered around reining in government spending and cutting debt. His message resonated in a state where the tourism-driven economy was hurting even before the recession.

"Charles's victory is evidence his conservative message of lowering the tax burden, job creation and government accountability knows no party lines," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele said.

Case and Hanabusa, meanwhile, fought over who was the better Democrat. The race inflamed tensions between Hawaii's leading politicians and labor leaders, who favored Hanabusa, and party officials in Washington, who believed Case was more viable. By beating Case, Hanabusa surprised Democrats in Washington. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), an early backer of Hanabusa's, commended her for "hanging tough" and, in an apparent shot at mainland Democrats who doubted her, said: "We know our Hawaii Democrats best."

The Democrats' feud is likely to continue through the Sept. 18 primary, as Case and Hanabusa said they would continue campaigning.

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