We won't know who has won Hawaii's special congressional election to replace Democrat Neil Abercrombie until May 22, but by the end of next week most voters will have cast their ballots. The state election board will mail out ballots to every registered voter in the First District today, April 30.
The mail-in election would normally give Democrats--who aren't as enthusiastic about turning out to the polls as Republican voters right now--another advantage in this district that Obama carried 70 percent to 28 percent in 2008. But Republicans have a great shot of winning the race because there are two Democrats splitting the vote in a three-way race.
Some have compared the campaign of 39 year-old Republican candidate Charles Djou, a Honolulu city councilman, for Obama's "home district" to Scott Brown's campaign to take Ted Kennedy's seat in deep-blue Massachusetts. Djou, who says he entered GOP politics as a "pimple faced teenager" interning for Congresswoman Patricia Saiki in 1986, notes that there are similarities between himself and Brown. Both are attorneys (and JAG officers) who have two daughters and are committed to fiscal responsibility. Unlike Brown, the cheerful 39 year-old Djou concedes, "There are no nude photos of me in Cosmo."
But perhaps a better model for the Hawaii special election is the inverse of the NY-23 special election in which two Republicans (Dede Scozzafava and Doug Hoffman) split the vote and paved the way for a Democrat to win. There hasn't been any public polling on the race in two weeks, but in mid-April a Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll showed Djou at 32 percent, leading Democrats Ed Case (29 percent) and Colleen Hanabusa (28 percent)--whichever candidate gets a plurality of votes will win the seat. Case, a former congressman, is somewhat more moderate on national security issues (he voted for the Iraq war). This makes him an unacceptable "moderate LieberDem" to the left-wingers (and Big Labor) who are supporting state senator Colleen Hanabusa. She also enjoys the backing of the local party establishment, which resents Case's primary challenge to sitting senator Daniel Akaka in 2006.
The Democrats share another issue in common that dogged conservative Republican Doug Hoffman in NY-23: they don't live inside the district they wish to represent. "Unlike, my two Democratic opponents, I plan to vote in this race," Djou said.
Asked to name the key issues that distinguish himself from his Democratic opponents, Djou cited their support for--and his opposition to--(1) the stimulus package, (2) the $1 trillion health-care program, (3) earmarks, and (4) the legalization of same-sex marriage.
As the first state to have same-sex marriage imposed by the judiciary (and then repealed by the people), the issue still has salience in Hawaii. Djou said he also opposes a recent civil unions bill that Hanabusa supported in the state legislature. It was an "attempt to change marriage through the back door," said Djou. Hawaii already has a domestic partnership law.
"The number one issue here in this race is the economy generally and fiscal policy," Djou said. Djou supports a "repeal and replace" platform on health care, but acknowledges it will be mathetmatically impossible to do that in the next Congress with Obama in the White House. Health care is an important issue, but Djou doesn't think it's a "driving issue" because Hawaii already has a state mandate requiring employers to provide insurance to any worker who’s employed for 20 hours or more per week.
Though Djou says he disagrees with Obama's policies, he strikes a friendly tone when discussing the president. "I would certainly give him an E for effort," Djou says when asked to grade the president's job performance. "I certainly think the president is sincere. I disagree with some conservatives who characterize him as a socialist."
The conciliatory tone can be explained by the fact that Obama still remains relatively well-liked in a district where he grew up, and Djou has a naturally sunny yet earnest personality. Djou graduated from Punahou high school nine years after Obama did. The two never met, but Djou was in the same class as Obama's younger sister Maya.
"Had I known Maya’s older brother would have become president," says Djou, "I would definitely have asked her out."
Even if he missed his shot to be Obama's brother-in-law, with any luck Djou should manage to meet the president very soon in Washington as a newly elected member of Congress.