With Scott Brown winning a Senate seat in Massachusetts, the Bay State no longer qualifies as the toughest terrain for Republican candidates. So which deep-blue spot will be the next one to shock the political world? It could be Hawaii’s 1st congressional district, which encompasses Honolulu and is sometimes referred to as “Barack Obama’s home district,” since the president lived in Hawaii’s capital city during his teen years. Obama carried HI-1 by a margin of 70 percent to 28 percent in 2008, and the retiring Democratic congressman who held this seat from 1990 to February 2010, Neil Abercrombie, usually won with more than 60 percent of the vote.
But thanks to quirky state rules, the election to replace Abercrombie for the remainder of his term will be a winner-take-all race with three major candidates — two Democrats and one Republican — and all votes will be cast by mail. The deadline for submitting ballots is May 22.
The National Republican Congressional Committee thought Honolulu city councilman Charles Djou would make a particularly strong candidate in normal circumstances. Now that he only needs to win a plurality against two well-known Democrats, Djou may never have a better chance to capture the seat.
“There’s no primary and no runoff, and that alone gives us a good chance,” Djou said in a recent conference call with reporters. Djou notes that this is a congressional district where George W. Bush won 47 percent of the vote in 2004, and where the state’s Republican governor, Linda Lingle, won 65 percent.
So far, Djou’s campaign has been as sunny as his district, but he can draw some clear distinctions between his own candidacy and those of his two Democratic rivals, former congressman Ed Case and state senator Colleen Hanabusa.
“I’m the only one who actually lives in the congressional district,” Djou says. “I have two opponents who are running insider themes. Case is running on his experience, his seniority, and [the fact that he] knows the corridors of Congress. Hanabusa is running on how she’s going to be a team player with Democrats in Congress. It’s clear that voting for Case or Hanabusa will not change Washington, D.C. My election will mean change, not just here, but if I win this race, we’re going to have a very big impact across the country.”
“I have never voted for a tax increase, and neither of my opponents can say that,” Djou says. “In five debates so far, both of them have repeated that they will not take a pledge to not raise taxes. They have both said they believe that there’s even an appropriate time to raise taxes, even in a recession.”
Abercrombie, the bearded free spirit who once compared the Pentagon’s Future Combat Systems to Harry Potter, knew when to deviate a bit from his liberalism to serve his district. As Michael Barone’s Almanac of American Politics notes, he sponsored a bill to allow companies to write off the travel costs of spouses as a business expense, a position that surely pleased Honolulu hotels, resorts, and conference centers.
Hanabusa’s record is a little less helpful to Hawaii’s tourism industry. In June of last year, she voted to increase taxes on hotel rooms by 1 percent in 2009 and by another 1 percent in 2010. A month earlier, as the recession raged, Hanabusa voted to permit Hawaii’s counties to impose a sales tax on property, and she also voted to increase the state income tax from a top rate of 8.25 percent to 11 percent. This was during a year when Hawaiian legislators’ base salary increased by 36 percent (from $36,700 to $48,708). She began the year by arguing that canceling the raise was “unfair and unconstitutional.” (Hawaii pays part-time legislators more than any other state does.) Hanabusa’s ads paint her as a fiscal conservative, insisting that putting documents online saved the state “millions.” Of course, since she was elected to the state senate in 1998, Hawaii’s outstanding state debt has grown by more than $4 billion and state spending has increased by $8 billion (or 77.5 percent).
By comparison, Ed Case would easily be the most unexpected and perhaps quixotic comeback bid of 2010 if this year hadn’t already brought murmurs of an independent bid by Ohio’s Jim Traficant. As of four years ago, Ed Case was representing Hawaii’s other congressional district. In 2002, he challenged the early favorite for governor, Honolulu mayor Jeremy Harris, and lost in the primary; after the November elections, he won a special election to fill the congressional seat previously occupied by the late Patsy Mink. In 2006, Case launched another unexpected primary challenge, this time taking on three-term Democratic senator Daniel Akaka and criticizing his vote against the Iraq War.
During his brief time in the House, Case amassed a standard liberal voting record. He voted against the 2003 Bush tax cuts, against a permanent repeal of the death tax, against a cut in subsidies to sugar producers, against restrictions on eminent domain, against a measure that would have stopped Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from borrowing from the Treasury, against a free-trade pact with Australia, against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, against a reduction in U.S. payments to the United Nations, and against cutting 18 of Amtrak’s least-traveled and most expensive routes. (How hard is it for a Hawaiian congressman to vote to reduce cross-country train service? It’s not like Amtrak is coming to Case’s district anytime soon.) He did cast multiple votes in favor of congressional pay raises.
When the race began, the Cook Political Report considered Hawaii’s first district to be a “safe” Democratic seat. Then it reclassified the seat as a “likely” Democratic hold, and on March 18 it moved HI-1 into the “toss up” category.
“Nothing can make a more powerful statement than to send a Republican to represent Barack Obama’s hometown,” Djou says.
– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.