Hawaii really is different.
The wave of anti-stimulus, anti-Obama and anti-Democrat energy sweeping across the nation changed the face of Congress Tuesday. But it failed to reach Oahu’s shores.
Hawaii Senate President Colleen Hanabusa made Congressman Charles Djou one of just two incumbent Republican casualties. Her win returns Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District to Democratic hands after a brief dalliance with the GOP.
Hanabusa received 84,422 votes (49.5 percent) to Djou’s 74,216 votes (43.5 percent) as of the third printout Tuesday night, with all precincts reporting and a few thousand more absentee votes left to be counted. The remaining ballots — 6.9 percent — were left blank.
“Our campaign, after the special election, was 100 percent local. And the message was local,” Hanabusa said in a victory speech at her Ward Avenue headquarters Tuesday night after the second printout. “The message was Hawaii is a special place and it’s you that defines Hawaii. And this election is about how we defined ourselves and how we defined the Hawaii that we want in the future.”
The matchup had been set for months. Djou went to Washington in May after topping Hanabusa and former Congressman Ed Case in a winner-take-all, mail-only special election to finish the 10th term of Neil Abercrombie, who had resigned to run for governor. Abercrombie will become the state’s seventh chief executive after topping Republican Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona by a 58-41 margin.
Hanabusa and Case split the Democratic support in that special election, allowing Djou to squeeze through with less than 40 percent of the vote. Case quickly bowed out of the race for the Democratic nomination, endorsing Hanabusa’s candidacy and clearing the way for her rematch against Djou.
The fourth time proved to be the charm for soon-to-be-Rep. Hanabusa. Born and raised on the Waianae Coast, the 59-year-old labor lawyer twice lost races to represent her home district, Hawaii’s 2nd. Prior to May’s special election, she ran unsuccessfully in a special election in 2003 to replace the late Patsy Mink, then lost in 2006 in a race to fill the seat vacated by Case.
She’s represented Leeward Oahu in the Hawaii Senate since 1998 and now lives in Ko Olina, but said during the campaign that if she was victorious, she’d move to the 1st Congressional District to live with her constituents. She’ll have to resign from her seat before being sworn into Congress in January. The new governor will appoint her replacement from a list of nominees from the Democratic Party.
A tough, effective legislator with a reputation for having an abrasive personality, Hanabusa ran a low-key campaign. Her campaign ads rarely mentioned her opponent by name.
But not everyone played so nice.
National Democrats, sensing a rare pickup opportunity, poured more than a million dollars into the district for commercials calling Djou a tool of Republicans. The GOP pushed back, and the campaign — on both sides — took on a decidedly negative flavor in the final weeks.
One National Republican Campaign Committee ad attacked Hanabusa and her husband with allegations of corruption surrounding seven-year-old tax breaks for a proposed aquarium in Ko Olina. The Democrats said Djou voted against schoolteachers and to send jobs overseas. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads group waded in with a spot focused on spending.
Asked in an exclusive interview following her speech why voters picked her, Hanabusa said the negative campaigning worked against Djou.
“People came up to me and said they can’t stand watching the news because it’s so absolutely negative,” she said, retelling a story of a little boy in Manoa who approached her and told her that she’d gotten his vote in Kids Vote Hawaii because he didn’t like the picture Republicans had used of her in a commercial.
President Barack Obama, still popular in the islands even as his job performance polling numbers slipped throughout most of the country, also played an important role. Just two years removed from taking 72 percent of Hawaii’s vote, Obama threw his support behind Hanabusa with automated phone calls and a video endorsement. Hanabusa defended the stimulus and other spending programs and said she’ll be an ally to the Hawaii-born president.
Djou, a former Honolulu City councilman and a child of immigrants with a history of fiscal conservatism, criticized those budget-busting policies. He said voters had to answer a question as they chose who to vote for: “Are you satisfied?”
The approach might have backfired: A Civil Beat poll in October found that the majority of Hawaii voters believe the country is moving in the right direction, and the vast majority of those optimistic voters backed Hanabusa.
“Through this campaign, we gave the people of Hawaii a choice for the first time in not years but decades,” Djou said in his concession speech at Hawaii GOP headquarters. “There was a real choice on the ballot for the people of Hawaii. And the winners were the people of Hawaii… The final word goes to the people. The people have spoken here this evening, and the choice was not for us.
“Unfortunately we fell just a little bit short. But although we fell short…I want you to know our failure this evening rests entirely on my shoulders. It is me and me alone here, all of you worked so incredibly hard, we just fell a little bit short here tonight.”
Djou’s speech came after Hanabusa had finished giving hers — the opposite of normal election night protocol. A Hanabusa campaign spokesman said that she had gone on first — before Djou spoke, and before he even called her to concede the race — because it was clear she would be victorious and campaign volunteers were waiting.
The Associated Press called the race for Hanabusa shortly after the second printout came out at 9:30 p.m. Hanabusa took the stage a few minutes after 10 p.m., and received the call from Djou at about 10:38 p.m. Djou gave his speech a few minutes before 11 p.m.
The Honolulu seat was one of just three currently held by Republicans that will change parties come January. Across the country, Republican challengers used voter frustration with Congress to oust Democratic incumbents. In all, the GOP’s 60-seat net gains in the House — some races are still undecided as of press time — flipped a 255-178 minority into a majority.
Asked about going from a 23-2 majority in the Hawaii Senate to a minority in the U.S. House, Hanabusa said she was looking forward to the challenge, and was optimistic about the next two years.
“Now that the Republicans have what they wished for, they’re looking at 2012,” she said in her interview with Civil Beat. “No longer can they afford to be obstructionists or they will see it swing back. … The politics of ‘no’ have got to end. The politics of fear have got to end.”
While 2012 is still a long way off, the story of the 2010 election is still being told. The powerful national dynamics that gave Republicans a louder voice in the federal government were not enough to overcome Democrats’ strong hold in Hawaii. Just months ago, the 40-year-old Djou became the first Republican in two decades to represent the islands in Congress. Tuesday, he became the first Hawaii incumbent to ever lose a federal re-election race in the state’s 51-year history.
In hindsight, Djou’s few short months as a United States congressman might have been the product of special election quirks and not a fundamental shift in Hawaii politics.
Instead, Hanabusa will get two years to get comfortable in her new digs — the new office in Washington, D.C., and new home in urban Honolulu — and tighten her grasp on the job.