Democrats are growing increasingly nervous about the special House election in Hawaii to replace former Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat who resigned to focus on his campaign for governor.
The anxiety stems from the rules for the special election. Because the top candidate in the May 22 election will fill the remainder of Abercrombie's term, former Rep. Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa might split the Democratic vote and hand the seat to Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou, a favorite of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Indeed, in a recent interview with CongressDaily, Djou joked that he had no plans to attack either of his opponents, because he didn't want either to rise or fall too far in the polls and potentially disrupt the delicate balance that could lead him to victory.
But given that it's Hawaii, a Democratic stronghold and birthplace of President Obama, Democrats say flipping the seat to Republicans would be disastrous as the political cycle intensifies.
"All of the momentum we have now after the healthcare vote might be jeopardized," said one House Democratic operative who has been in a handful of meetings where potential White House involvement in the race has been discussed. "They need to recognize how important this is before it sneaks up on them."
Conventional wisdom might suggest getting behind one candidate, presumably Case because he has already been elected to Congress. But in this case, Democratic strategists said the party establishment and White House are reluctant to get involved because Hawaii Democratic Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye are still angry that Case challenged Akaka in the 2006 primary and referred to their ages as he campaigned.
Case's Web site features a clash with Inouye and a rehash of political decisions made in the last decade by some of the state's most prominent Democrats.
Hanabusa has liabilities, too. She is under fire in the local press for campaigning for pay cuts for state legislators while having taken a pay raise. But at the end of last year, Hanabusa had more cash on hand with $219,000 to Case's $139,000. Djou had $334,000 on hand to start this year.
Case led in the last public poll, but that was nearly three months ago. Privately, Democratic strategists sense a momentum shift for Djou.
"The onus is on the White House. ... Can you imagine how bad it would be messaging-wise if we lost Obama's home district after losing Massachusetts?" one strategist said.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.
by Erin McPike