In a sign of just how much the political landscape has changed since November 2008, for the first time in 18 years a Republican is mounting a serious challenge in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, which includes Honolulu and the childhood home of President Obama.
An unusual series of circumstances have come together to give Honolulu city council chairman Charles K. Djou a shot at becoming only the second Republican to represent Hawaii in the House and the first since Pat Saiki in 1987. In 2008 Djou announced he would be running for Congress against Democrat incumbent Neil Abercrombie, who has held the seat since 1991.
Last March Abercrombie said he would not defend his seat, choosing instead to run for governor. In December Abercrombie announced that he would resign his seat effective February 28 in order to concentrate on the campaign, setting off an winner-take-all special election that will be conducted entirely by mail.
“Imagine the narrative coming on the heels of Scott Brown; a Republican wins in Obama’s home congressional district,” said Dave Wasserman, House editor at the Cook Political Report. Wasserman said the open format of the special election without a primary or run-off gives Djou a shot at pulling off an upset in what until recently had been considered a safe Democratic seat.
“The mood of the country is clearly trending away from the establishment to candidates running against the majority. I also think the dynamics of this special election work well for me,” Djou said.
Djou is the only Republican contender while the Democrats are fielding two candidates: state senate President Colleen Hanabusa and former 2nd District Congressman Ed Case. All indications are that the race between the two will be heated. Both currently live outside the first district and have previously run for Hawaii’s other congressional seat. Hanabusa is the candidate most favored by the state’s Democratic establishment, while Case upset some in his party when he mounted a primary challenge against Sen. Daniel Akaka in 2006. State Senator Will Espero is also reported to be considering joining the race, further splitting the Democratic vote.
“The more Democrats that get in this race the better,” Djou campaign manager Dylan Nonaka said.
While Wasserman said the first district leans Democratic, Nonaka noted that voters there have supported Republican governors in the past four elections and George W. Bush received 47 percent of the vote in 2004. Nonaka said the district has a strong GOP base of between 30 and 35 percent of the registered voters. Djou said Tuesday that his campaign has raised approximately $425,000 to date, Case has reportedly raised approximately $200,000. The national party has taken notice; Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele appeared at a fundraiser for Djou recently and a source said the RNC will ensure that he has the funds necessary to be competitive in the election.
Djou described himself as a strong fiscal conservative who has never voted for a tax increase during his time on the city council and as a member of Hawaii’s state House.
On national issues, he opposes the healthcare bills currently before Congress and expressed support for alternate measures including tort reform and medical savings accounts. Djou also touted his efforts to introduce curbside recycling in Honolulu and called himself a responsible steward of Hawaii’s environment, which is critical to the state’s tourism industry. He criticized the cap-and-trade proposals currently under consideration in Congress for their focus on mandates instead of incentives.