This Could Be Djou’s Best Chance

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - August 24, 2011

Charles Djou. File photo

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Djou surprised no one by announcing last week that he will challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa for the 1st District seat Hanabusa snatched from him last November. He surprised everyone, however, by announcing that Reserve Army Maj. Charles Djou will be deployed to Afghanistan for a six-month tour as a legal adviser.

This will be the third Djou-Hanabusa meeting. The first, a Djou-HanabusaEd Case special election contest in April 2010, Djou won. Third-place finisher Case dropped out of the race, leaving Hanabusa and Djou to battle for the Case vote. Hanabusa attracted enough to defeat Djou by a margin of 6 percent.

Challenging a sitting congressional incumbent in Hawaii is nearly impossible. Hanabusa succeeded only because Djou had a mere six months in office to cement his incumbency.

If he wants the seat back, Djou’s picking the right time to go for it. Give an incumbent two or three terms in office and the odds against him or her are overwhelming. Would-be Hawaii congressional candidates must then wait for death, resignations or declarations that begin: “... thus, I have decided that in 20__ I will not be a candidate for reelection.” Should Hannabusa decide to run for the United States Senate seat being vacated by Dan Akaka, Djou may have such a moment.

Either way, facing an incumbent or running for an open seat, Djou faces an uphill struggle. In the 2010 general election, Hanabusa won all but five of the 25 state House districts in the 1st congressional. Only East Honolulu belonged to Djou, plus a slice of Mililani and another of Ewa Beach.

Add that Hawaii remains the nation’s most Democratic state and that keiki o ka aina Barack Obama will be at the top of the ticket, and the hill becomes an electoral mountain for Djou.

Djou will do his best to turn Obama into a liability for his Democratic opponent. In announcing his candidacy, Djou said, “Instead of focusing on how to grow the economy, our government remains partisan, polarized and, worst of all, paralyzed.” Our paralyzed government is undoubtedly caused, in Djou’s telling, more by President Obama and congressional Democrats than tea-imbibing Republicans.

Djou also offered a fourdecade-old staple of Hawaii Republican congressional candidates: “Hawaii, in particular, has become exceptionally isolated and vulnerable in Washington because of the lack of a bipartisan congressional delegation that is willing to talk with both sides.”

It’s a valid argument. It’s only worked once, however: in 1986, when Republican Pat Saiki won the first of two terms in Congress. But she was running for an open seat. Otherwise, Hawaii’s voters have been content with a lopsided Democratic congressional delegation.

So can Djou win? Sure. He raised $2.3 million in 2010 to Hanabusa’s $2.1 million, and he’s likely to have more-than-sufficient funds this year. He’ll also have youth, energy and newly minted status as a veteran of foreign wars.

But will he win? That’s another question. In 2010, Djou never called himself a Tea Party Republican, but his message throughout both the special and general elections sounded very much like theirs. Obama’s taking a lot of flack these days, but Tea Partyers are taking even more.

To win, Djou has to move toward the middle in this most Democratic and unionized of states. The commonly heard criticism of Djou during his 2010 campaigns was that he was “robotic,” in both manner and partisanship. To turn “can win” into “will win” in 2012, Djou will have to demonstrate that he’s nobody’s robot.


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