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« Fresh Faces, Same Places | Blog Home Page | Week In Midterms: Who Will Capitalize On Voter Mood? »

Republican House Gain May Be Short Lived In Hawaii

Since President Obama took office, Democrats have lost governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia, and the Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. The one bright spot has been in special elections for the House, where the party has won all seven elections, including one pick-up from Republicans.

That winning streak is likely to end Saturday as voters in Hawaii's 1st Congressional district choose a candidate to replace Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat who resigned to pursue his run for governor. State law for special elections there calls for a race in which all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run in a single election. The presence of two strong Democratic candidates -- former second district Rep. Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa, president of the state Senate -- is expected to result in the victory of Republican Charles Djou, a Honolulu councilman.

The inability of Washington Democrats to convince Case or Hanabusa to stand aside led to the decision by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to pull back all resources from the race. In the district where Obama grew up, and where Democrats far outnumber Republicans, the expected result Saturday will be an embarrassment for the party. But officials stress that while Republicans may enjoy a short-term benefit, this seat is almost certain to return to Democratic hands in November.

"I think everybody recognizes that the dynamics of this election are different than anything else," a Democratic strategist involved in the race said. "This is about a quirk in Hawaii election law."

The district is one of the most Democratic in the country -- Abercrombie won with no less than 60 percent of the vote in the past decade, and Obama carried it with 70 percent of the vote in 2008. And Democrats are convinced that the regular November race featuring just one Democrat against Djou, will result in the seat flipping back their way.

No matter what the outcome tomorrow, all three candidates are expected to remain engaged in that race to hold the seat beyond January 2011. Hanabusa, the favored Democrat of local Republicans and party interest groups including labor, reiterated this week her pledge to remain in the race through the September primary election. Case, the favored candidate of Washington Democrats who declares in television ads that he is the White House's candidate, has also shown no indication he will stand down.

And so, Democrats will continue to battle for four more months. Democrats say that no matter how difficult the primary battle is, the eventual Democratic nominee will win back the seat.

"We know that we will survive this no matter what," said Dante Carpenter, chair of the Hawaii Democratic Party. "The Democratic Party usually has been able to ... galvanize behind the winner. That has been the mark of consistency of the Democratic Party here in Hawaii."

Furthermore, national Democrats argue that as the incumbent in an anti-incumbent year, Djou may find it difficult to hold the seat in November. Case in particular has focused on a comment from his potential opponent, that he would be the "exact opposite" of Obama -- something the party thinks voters will clearly reject when presented with a binary choice.

Republicans counter that the internal Democratic battle, culminating in a very late primary, will leave the ultimate victor gravely wounded. And while Djou would technically be the incumbent, he will be safe if he follows through on his promises.

"There are a lot of constituents who are angry at their elected officials not because they're elected officials, but because they're not doing what they promised," said NRCC spokesman John Randall. "If Djou wins on Saturday and he represents the district the way he's pledged to do it in the campaign, that will be something that he can hang his hat on."

An unexpectedly lopsided win in Pennsylvania 12 this Tuesday has some questioning whether the NRCC can indeed win the key races necessary to position the party to regain control of the House. Though Democrats are quick to downplay the implications of tomorrow's vote, Republican say there's an important distinction.

"Unlike Pennsylvania, if we win that is a change in the makeup of the House," Randall said.

Indeed, Republicans have not won a Democratic-held seat in a special election in June 2001, when Randy Forbes won the race in Virginia-04. Republicans haven't won any special election since Steve Scalise retained the seat vacated by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in May 2008.

Nearly half of all eligible voters had cast their votes by mid-week in the race, the first in Hawaii conducted solely by mail. All votes will be tallied by Saturday, with the victory taking office as soon as next week.