For only the third time since statehood, Hawaii's congressional delegation will include a Republican. But Democrats believe they will win the seat back in November when they unite behind one candidate.
Republican Charles Djou, a Honolulu City Councilman, was elected to the U.S. Congress Saturday night in a special election. He defeated two well-known Democrats, former Congressman Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa.
Final results from the State Elections Office showed Djou had received 67,610 votes, or 39.4 percent of the total votes. Hanabusa finished second with 52,802 votes, or 30.8 percent, while Case finished third, with 47,391 votes, or 27.6 percent.
Djou is expected to be sworn in and to begin serving in Washington early next week. But his time in office may be short-lived.
To win a full two-year term beginning in early 2011, Djou will have to prevail in two more elections this year. The first, the Sept. 18 Republican primary, should be a snap. But the Nov. 2 general election, against a single Democratic opponent — likely Hanabusa or Case — will almost certainly be much tougher.
Fourteen candidates ran for the seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie when he resigned in February to run for governor after 20 years in Washington. The 1st Congressional District is essentially urban Oahu, primarily Honolulu.
The winner-take-all contest required only a plurality of the vote. Djou, Case and Hanabusa were the clear front-runners by virtue of their experience in office, but the two Democrats effectively split the party’s vote, handing the race to the Republican.
“This is a momentous day!” Djou told supporters. “We have sent a message to the United States Congress, to the ex-governors, to the national Democrats, to the machine! We have sent a message!”
The 1st district election received heavy national attention.
One reason is because President Barack Obama was born and graduated from high school in the district, and Hawaii is a favored vacation spot for the president and his family. A Republican victory in such a blue state is seen as symbolic, though Djou is actually the second Republican to occupy the seat. Pat Saiki held the same office from 1987 to 1991, while Hiram Fong served in as a Republican in the Senate from 1959 until 1977.
Another reason is the intense battle over party control of the U.S. House, currently run by Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reportedly spent more than $300,000 on the race before deciding it was wasting its money and pulling out. Both Hanabusa and Djou received dozens of campaign donations from mainland political action committees. By contrast, Case has received very little PAC money.
It’s not clear whether the anti-incumbent sentiment seen this year in mainland races helped elect Djou to an open seat. But a Civil Beat poll conducted by Merriman River Group in early May found that nearly 13 percent of likely voters surveyed identified themselves with the Tea Party.
What hurt local Democrats most, however, was the inability to unite behind a single candidate. Hanabusa had the strong backing of the party establishment, starting at the top with U.S. Sen Daniel K. Inouye. Case is not considered a team player by local Democrats, even though he previously represented the 2nd Congressional District for more than four years.
The election was conducted by mail, and by the time the results were announced 54 percent of ballots had been returned by registered voters in the 1st Congressional District.
A total of 317,337 ballots were mailed to voters, with absentee voting allowed at Honolulu Hale until 4 p.m. May 20. The deadline for ballots to be received was 6 p.m. on Saturday, and voters were allowed to drop the ballots off at two locations on Oahu.
A total of 171,417 registered voters cast a ballot in the May 22 special election.
In 2008, when Oahu-born Barack Obama was elected president, approximately 199,917 people voted in the 1st Congressional contest, not counting blank votes. In 2006, a total of 162,794 votes were cast in the 1st district, not counting blank votes
The losing Democratic candidates each put their best spin on the outcome.
Case told Channel 2 that $1 million in negative advertising targeted at him was to blame for his third place showing.
A Hanabusa aide credited a push by volunteers at the end of the race to contact voters. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye congratulated Djou, but said when November rolls around he expects Hanabusa to take back the seat.
The Honolulu City Council is expected to name a replacement to serve out the remainder of Djou’s term, which was set to expire at the end of the year. At least three candidates have said they will run for the seat this fall to represent an area that runs from Hawaii Kai to Waikiki.
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