Republicans Win One in Hawaii

Fresh off a loss Tuesday in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district, Republicans have gained a House seat in the district where President Obama was born and raised, as Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou won Saturday's special election there.

This was a quirky race, to say the least: it was a three-way, winner-take-all free-for-all, featuring Djou and two Democrats--former Rep. Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa. Djou won it with 39.4%; Hanabusa, surprisingly, took second with 30.8%; Case finished third with 27.6%.

The Democratic establishment in Washington was caught in the middle on this one.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn't endorse a candidate in this race, but it saw Case as the stronger candidate, and Politico reported in April that the DCCC was helping Case behind the scenes. Some intense local political concerns were at play: there's bad blood between Case and Hawaii's two senior-most Democratic politicians--the state's two U.S. senators, Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye. Case had offended them by challenging Akaka for his Senate seat in 2006, according to Hawaii Democrats. It was apparent that Case would be next in line when one of them retired, but, according to those Democrats, he ran a campaign that implied that Akaka was too old to represent the state. This didn't sit well.

It appeared the DCCC would anger Hawaii's two senators in backing Case. When it became apparent that Hanabusa wouldn't drop out, and that Djou was leading in polls, the DCCC pulled out earlier this month, after having run ads that attacked Djou but didn't say anything about the Democrats in the race. Organized labor, meanwhile, backed Hanabusa.

The big surprise in this race was that Hanabusa beat Case--the chosen DCCC candidate--who had led her substantially in polls throughout the spring. Internal Democratic polling in April showed him tied with Djou at 32%, with Hanabusa trailing at 27%. She trailed Djou and Case again in a Honolulu Advertiser poll in early May, collecting 22% to Case's 28%.

Djou will now represent the district for at least seven months. In November, he will be challenged by a single Democratic opponent, elected by a primary. He will probably lose. The district is heavily Democratic, and Djou benefited from a split Democratic vote. A Democrat--be it Hanabusa, Case, or someone else--will probably be sworn in to replace him in January.

Republicans have pointed to Hawaii's special election as evidence that they're doing well, nationally. This is certainly a victory for the GOP, but it doesn't appear to say much about the national political climate. Democrats, combined, took 58% of the vote. Republicans can enjoy the fact that Democratic in-fighting handed them this seat, but it's not the type of in-fighting that's indicative of a broader trend.

So the spring's two most high-profile special elections--this one, and Pennsylvania's 12th district, which Democrat Mark Critz won on Tuesday--are a wash. Hawaii's race tells us that the DCCC is willing to pick a side among Democrats, even when it's unpopular among senior Democrats of that state; that it's hard to convince Colleen Hanabusa to drop out of a race; that the DCCC is willing to pull out when there's no clear path to victory; that three-way races are hard to predict; and that sometimes the establishment-chosen candidate gets beaten by the underdog.

As far as trends for November, it's probably less significant than the coal-country district in Southwest Pennsylvania.