Republicans Cry ‘Cowabunga!’ GOP congressman Charles Djou hangs on in Hawaii
by Brian Bolduc National Review
Republicans are itching for a majority in the House of Representatives. And one seat they hope will be in it is Hawaii’s 1st congressional district.
In May, Charles Djou won a special election to replace Neil Abercrombie, who had resigned to run for governor. Immediately, pundits predicted Djou’s demise. The second Republican Hawaii had ever sent to Congress, Djou earned just 39.4 percent of the vote — winning because two Democrats, Colleen Hanabusa and Ed Case, split the opposition.
“This is a district that went for President Obama 70%-28% in the 2008 Election, and for it’s [sic] then-incumbent Democratic Congressman 77%-19%. With numbers like these, it’s hard to believe that Djou will be quite as fortunate come November,” Doug Mataconis wrote at the time on Outside the Beltway, a right-leaning political blog.
Two weeks ago, however, the Hill released a poll in which Djou led his once and current opponent, Hanabusa, 45 to 41 percent — within a margin of error of 4.9 percent. The poll also found 61 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of the congressman, while 56 percent did of his adversary. Fortune, it seems, is smiling on Djou.
And it’s not so shocking. Hawaii has never voted out a federal incumbent. “There’s a lot of ‘let’s give this guy a shot’ feeling among people,” says Steven Moore, chief of staff to Rep. Pete Roskam (R., Ill.) and a member of Djou’s inner circle. The congressman also has earned his keep. “When [Djou and his staff] got here, they hit the ground running,” Moore adds. “I helped them set up their office. They had a highly functioning constituent-service office within minutes. They have a culture of constituent service.”
Indeed, Moore thinks issues will not be especially decisive in this race. Although Djou supports repeal of the health-care bill, opposes cap-and-trade (or, in his Republican parlance, “a national energy tax”), and believes unspent stimulus funds should be directed toward debt reduction, he isn’t running on rock-ribbed conservatism. In a state where 53 percent of voters still approve of President Obama’s performance and only 37 percent disapprove, he probably shouldn’t. Instead, Djou is running on his independence.
“He was one of eleven Republicans who actually voted in favor of maintaining the moratorium on offshore drilling,” Daniel Son, press secretary to Djou, tells National Review Online. “He was one of five that voted for the president’s rural-conservation bill that came up toward the end of session. He’s always said he was going to be a congressman for Hawaii.”
Such independence makes Djou more appealing to his traditionally blue district. At least his opponents think so. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent over $700,000 on negative ads. “In Washington, Charles Djou voted with Republican leaders 90 percent of the time,” the narrator’s voice intones in one ad, before reassuring cynics, “That’s not just a number.”
Richard Rapoza, communications director for Hanabusa’s campaign, expresses a similar theme: “[Djou] hasn’t been 100 percent against Hawaii’s values, but he has voted against our values a number of times. He’s voted with the Republicans 90 percent of the time and with them pushing privatizing Social Security, that tendency is concerning.”
When asked whether Djou actually supports privatizing Social Security, however, Rapoza admits, “I don’t know.”
For its part, Djou’s campaign contends that Hanabusa, a state senator, marches in lockstep herself. “In the last four years, she’s voted yes on every piece of legislation in the state senate — which is just astonishing,” Son says.
To be fair to Hanabusa, that’s no surprise. The chamber has 23 Democrats and two Republicans. “The reality of the situation is that by the time a bill comes back to the floor on final reading in either the house or the senate, it has been through a number of public hearings. They’ve discussed; it’s been amended. At that point they’ve pretty much reached a consensus on the bill,” Rapoza responds.
But perhaps Hawaiians have reached a consensus themselves: They want a congressman who will be independent of the Democratic majority in Washington. “This race is emblematic of the direction that Congress will go in,” says Son. “If Democrats are not going to hold on to a district which includes President Obama’s hometown, then it will go badly for them.”
Hawaii’s 1st congressional district is difficult to hold. And Republicans long to hold it, for it would be the crown jewel of their next majority in the House.
— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.