By the time Rep. Charles Djou (R-HI) was sworn in as a Member of Congress, Democrats were on message for next November, dismissing him as a seat warmer. Victorious in a May special election, Djou became the first Republican sent to Congress from Aloha State since fmr. U.S. Rep. Patricia Saiki abandoned her seat for a respectable run for the U.S. Senate in 1990.
At first blush, Hawaii’s First Congressional District doesn’t look like a potential Blue to Red conversion target. Obama did carry HI01 by a lopsided 70-28 percent spread, but that margin seems to be grossly distorted in favor of Honolulu’s Favorite Son. President Obama was born and spent some of his schoolboy years in this very district.
Djou’s Honolulu-based district is historically Democratic, but it is not utterly inhospitable to Republican candidates. As the Washington Examiner’s senior Political Analyst Michael Barone mentions in his Almanac of American Politics, HI01 is home to “many military families in modest neighborhoods who may vote for Democrats but can be attracted to Republicans.”
Riding on that wave of patriotism and support from military families, Republican strategists smelled a shot at winning Hawaii in an election where every Electoral vote mattered. Vice President Dick Cheney was dispatched to make an 11th hour touchdown in Honolulu late Sunday night before Election Day 2004. Cheney’s visit couldn’t snare Hawaii’s four electoral votes, but the Bush-Cheney ticket picked up eight points over 2000 totals in both congressional districts. The precipitous drop in John McCain’s Republican presidential performance from 2004 is partially inflated by Bush-Cheney’s 2000-2004 uptick.
Most of Hawaii’s tiny rump of Republican opposition in its state legislature represent areas within this congressional district. Incumbent Republican Gov. Linda Lingle posted her best numbers around Honolulu as she breezed to landslide reelection four years ago.
There was no special primary, all candidates appeared on the ballot together in a “jungle primary.” The candidate with a mere plurality, however underwhelming, would take the seat of fmr. Democratic Neil Abercrombie, who resigned to focus on his bid for the contested Democratic gubernatorial nomination. (Saiki and Abercrombie traded the seat back and forth after a 1986 special election with a similarly silly storyline.)
To get to Washington, Djou pulled in a plurality of just 40% of the vote. Democrats were divided, and they split the rest of the vote between fmr. U.S. Rep. Ed Case, preferred by DCCC strategists, and State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa. Hanabusa, whom Case bested in a 2003 special election that sent him to Congress, was the favorite of Hawaii’s powerful public service unions and had iconic U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye in her corner.
Democrats seem likely to coalesce around Hanabusa for the fight for a full term on November’s ballot, but Djou is positioned to hold on if he campaigns with subtlety and savvy.
Djou touts his military background - a captain in the Army Reserve, he signed up after 9/11 - as he appeals to his military-friendly constituency. (That appeal may have been blunted with his first high profile vote, seeking to stake out his independence from House Republican leadership. Djou was one of a mere five House Republicans to vote to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military, a position which some of HI 01’s military families may disagree with, and adamantly so.)
It is also worth noting that if Djou can’t count on the popular, but term-limited Lingle at the top his ticket in November, Inouye’s once-formidable Hawaii Democratic machine does not seem able to deliver what it once could. Inouye still harbors resentment against Case over his failed 2006 primary challenge to Inouye’s longtime colleague, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), but his operation helped Hanabusa only barely edge out the less loyal Case among Democrats. Inouye’s loyal legions of Japanese-Hawaiian voters are aging, their numbers less abundant in the Aloha State’s electorate in 2010. Since Ed Case took his name out of the race for a full term, Inouye may not bother to ramp up his operation for November.
Assiduous attention to constituent service, as Djou has vowed, and an affable “Home Style” that’s an antidote to partisan polarization in this overwhelming but far from reflexively Democratic district is a perfectly plausible recipe for repeated returns to Washington.