Across the country, Democrats and Republicans are fighting for control of Congress.
Democrats hold a 255-178 lead in the House of Representatives. With all 435 seats up for grabs in the Nov. 2 general election, Republicans are hoping to take back the lower chamber and install John Boehner as speaker in Nancy Pelosi’s stead. They’re banking on an anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat wave sweeping across the continental U.S.
But Democrats are betting that wave won’t reach Hawaii’s shores. If Hawaii Senate President Colleen Hanabusa is able to knock off new GOP Congressman Charles Djou, it would be a victory that might help Democrats hang on to their power.
Political analysts in Washington, D.C., have for months been breaking down the fight for the House, but in Hawaii, public attention has been focused on the battles for governor and Honolulu mayor. With the nation’s last primary election now in the rear-view mirror, the race is starting to come out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election analysis newsletter, currently rates 204 seats as solid, likely or leaning toward Democrats and 181 seats as solid, likely or leaning toward Republicans. That leaves 50 seats — 47 currently held by Democrats and three held by Republicans — up for grabs. With 218 needed for a majority, the House could go either way, and the GOP appears to be poised for big gains.
CQPolitics.com, another Washington-based publication, has similar projections. It currently rates 213 seats as safe, likely or leaning Democratic and 188 as safe, likely or leaning Republican. Of the 34 up for grabs, just three are held today by a Republican.
Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District is rated as a toss-up by both publications. Djou is among perhaps the rarest of species in Washington, D.C. — an endangered elephant. How the Honolulu race unfolds could well make the difference between 218 representatives for one party or 218 for the other.
The GOP brand is thriving nationwide as many candidates make their races a referendum on the economy’s struggles and heavy spending by the Obama administration on programs like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka “the stimulus,” and health-care reform. An average of eight major polls on the president’s job approval published by Real Clear Politics showed that 45.4 percent of the public approve of his performance and 49.6 percent disapprove.
But Hawaii bucks the trend. Personal attacks on the president — particularly those that touch on race or question where he was born — might get traction on the mainland but don’t work in the cultural melting pot that is Hawaii. Obama spent his formative years here and still returns for Christmas.
Hanabusa, asked this week if she’d hang her election chances on the commander-in-chief, said Obama is still popular on the islands.
“This is such a unique opportunity because we do have a president that was born here and raised here. I believe that President Obama’s approval ratings are still very high in Hawaii and I think Hawaii views him with warm affection and he views the state (that way),” she said in a TV interview with KHON2. “So to the extent that we’re able to secure his support, which I believe we will be, I think that I will be able to call upon his assistance in this upcoming election.”
A Civil Beat poll backs up her theory.
A survey of 1,226 voters likely to participate in the gubernatorial primary conducted on Sept. 7 and 8 shows that 39.8 percent strongly support the job Obama has done as president and another 23.2 percent approve somewhat. On the other side, 19.5 percent strongly disapprove and 8.4 percent disapprove somewhat. That’s a 63 to 28 split in Obama’s favor, with 9 percent unsure. That’s about 20 points better than Obama fares nationally.
Djou acknowledged the danger in being seen as an Obama foil when he spoke with reporters after delivering the Republican response to Obama’s weekly radio address last month. He said it’s possible to criticize Obama’s policies without criticizing the president personally. But if the White House puts any of its weight behind Hanabusa, it could damage Djou’s chances.
National Republican operatives seem to have already realized that keeping Djou in Congress might be an uphill slog. Politico reported in mid-August that the GOP’s “midterm blueprint” included a “$22 million TV ad blitz” in support of 41 House candidates — but left Djou out in the cold.
That purchase order for ad time was not written in stone and was only designed as a “first wave,” the National Republican Congressional Committee told Politico. But it could indicate that Republicans plan to go on offense and target the weaker Democratic incumbents while abandoning GOP incumbents they don’t feel have a serious chance.
Joining Djou in the “ignored” column was Rep. Joseph Cao, whose Louisiana seat is rated D+25 by Cook Political Report. The Cook Partisan Voting Index describes how strongly a congressional district or state leans toward one party versus the nation as a whole. Cao’s D+25 rating means that in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, his district performed an average of 25 points more Democratic than the rest of the country.
Like Djou, Cao took advantage of unlikely circumstances to squeeze into Congress. Djou was victorious in a three-way special election in May when two strong Democrats split the vote, while Cao took over two years ago for a disgraced Democratic lawmaker who has since been sentenced to a decade in prison for bribery. Many pundits predict that Cao will be looking for a new job next year.
Cook rates Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District as D+11 and its 2nd Congressional District, represented by Democrat Mazie Hirono, as D+14. Democrats’ statewide dominance was evident in Saturday’s primary election, when more than 80 percent of Hawaii voters pulled a Democratic ballot — though that might have been due in part to the top-of-the-ticket fight between Democratic governor hopefuls Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann.
Not only did Hanabusa secure 85,680 votes to Djou’s 21,584, but Democratic also-ran Rafael “Del” Del Castillo topped Djou with 22,848 votes of his own. The primary numbers didn’t temper Djou’s confidence.
“We feel very good but we are by no means overconfident. We’re gonna work very, very hard,” Djou told Civil Beat on election night at Hawaii Republican Party headquarters. “I understand that every single day I hold this seat in the United States Congress, it is because of the trust the people have placed in me and I need to earn that trust every single day.”
Pre-primary and post-primary e-mails asking National Republican Congressional Committee Western Regional Press Secretary Joanna Burgos for information about any GOP’s plans to help Djou were not returned.
The fact that Hawaii politics have long been dominated by Democrats hasn’t scared off all national GOP organizations. The Republican Governors Association has paid for banner ads and commercials promoting James “Duke” Aiona‘s run for Hawaii’s top job.
Even if the NRCC isn’t buying ad time in Hawaii, it appears that Djou is not entirely on his own.
The first, a $250-per-person lunch, was to be held at the Associated General Contractors of America Townhouse last Thursday. The second is a $250-per-person breakfast that was scheduled for Wednesday at National Republican Congressional Committee headquarters. And the third is another $250-per-person lunch, this one featuring Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia on Thursday at the NRCC.
With a little help from his friends in Washington, Djou is not going down without a fight.
The Hill reported Tuesday that Djou has adopted a defensive strategy also employed by some vulnerable Democrats: cosponsoring some opposing party legislation to look more bipartisan. He’s also taken some positions that separate him from the Republican mainstream, such as voting in favor of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation regarding gays in the military and arguing against changing the constitutional guarantee that any child born in the U.S. is a citizen.
And though the NRCC has yet to run a general election ad either promoting Djou or bashing Hanabusa, Djou has already rolled out a new commercial of his own since Saturday’s primary. In a press release promoting the ad, titled “Making A Difference,” Djou said the spot highlights a few of the initiatives he pursued since he took office in May.
“I co-sponsored a balanced budget amendment to force the federal government to live within its means and secure a better future for our children,” Djou tells viewers before smiling and walking off camera. He quickly appears again, in a new location and wearing a new shirt. “I co-sponsored tax relief for small business like these so they can create local jobs and supported free trade agreements to grown our economy for Hawaii families.”
Democrats were quick to jump on the ad.
“It should come as no surprise that the one thing Charles Djou won’t do in his TV ads is talk about his voting record since it represents an economic agenda out of step with the needs and interests of the people of Hawaii,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Western Regional Press Secretary Andy Stone said in a press release.
“Whether it’s Djou’s opposition to reining in Wall Street excesses, emergency unemployment benefits for people struggling to find a job and preventing future taxpayer-funded bailouts or his support for privatizing Social Security and protecting tax breaks for job outsourcers, it’s clear that Charles Djou is out of touch with the economic concerns families in Hawaii are facing,” Stone said.
But national Democrats are not limiting themselves to criticizing Djou’s advertisements. Last week, the DCCC put out an ad of its own attacking Djou’s record.
In criticizing that commercial, Burgos, the Republican spokeswoman, described Hanabusa as national Democrats’ second choice for the seat.
Published reports ahead of May’s special election suggested that Washington Democrats preferred fiscal moderate Ed Case because he had a better chance of beating Djou. Hanabusa went so far as to hold a news conference to announce that she wasn’t going to pull out of the race.
It was widely believed that the two split the Democratic vote, opening the door for Djou to take the seat with less than 40 percent of the total vote. Hanabusa, who edged Case in that race despite little help from Washington, except from Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, is now counting on some national support.
“I don’t know to what extent or how they will do it. I do believe that we will receive the support of the White House and the support of the (Democratic National Committee) and of course the D-triple-C,” Hanabusa told Civil Beat in a primary-night phone interview. She noted her campaign cannot have prior knowledge of what form the support takes and said she expected the allies will talk more about general strategy in coming weeks.
“I anticipate that there is a major interest in regaining this seat, especially because it’s President Obama’s home state,” Hanabusa said.
National Democrats have taken some smaller steps to raise Hanabusa’s visibility. She’s among 29 candidates included in the DCCC’s Red-to-Blue program — a step that has pulled in just $121 for her campaign. In all, Hanabusa has raised less than $3,000 on the DCCC website.
Every little bit counts, though, and Hanabusa outraised Djou $330,000 to $206,000 in July and August, according to federal election fundraising reports. Djou had raised more for the full election cycle, $1.83 million to $1.69 million, and had slightly more cash on hand, $428,000 to $404,000, as of that Sept. 7 report, but Hanabusa seemed to have grabbed the momentum.
The Federal Election Commission deadline for the next quarterly report, covering all receipts and expenditures through Sept. 30, is Oct. 15. The pre-general election report, including everything through Oct. 13, is due Oct. 21.
Those reports will be an indication of the intensity of the race and where the candidates’ support is coming from. But perhaps even more important in coming weeks will be how many ads we see from groups independent of the candidates carrying the national fight over control of Congress to Hawaii.