Republicans scored a midterm election victory Saturday when Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou won a Democratic-held House seat in Hawaii in the district where President Barack Obama grew up.
The congressional race should have been a cakewalk for Democrats. The seat had been held by a Democrat for nearly 20 years and is located in the district where Obama was born and spent most of his childhood.
"This is a momentous day. We have sent a message to the United States Congress. We have sent a message to the national Democrats. We have sent a message to the machine," Djou said. "The congressional seat is not owned by one political party. This congressional seat is owned by the people."
Djou received 67,274 votes, or 39.5 percent. He was trailed by state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, a Democrat who received 52,445 votes, or 30.8 percent. The other leading Democrat, former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, received 47,012 votes, or 27.6 percent.
Republicans see the victory as a powerful statement about their momentum heading into November. They already sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts — a place that was once thought to be the most hostile of territories for the GOP. Now Republicans can say they won a congressional seat in the former backyard of the president and in a state that gave Obama 72 percent of the vote two years ago.
"Charles' victory is evidence his conservative message of lowering the tax burden, job creation and government accountability knows no party lines. It is a message Americans want to hear from candidates across the country," said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
But Democrats believe the success in Hawaii will be short-lived. Djou will only serve through the remainder of 2010, and another election will be held in November for the next term. Democrats are confident they can topple Djou in November because the vote won't be split among several candidates, as it was Saturday.
Djou, 39, enjoyed solid support from state and national Republicans and ran a disciplined campaign focused on taxes and government spending at a time when Hawaii's tourism-driven economy remains troubled, with the state facing a $1 billion deficit, large cuts to state programs and workers and an unemployment rate that has nearly doubled in the last three years.
In contrast, Democrats bickered over whether Case or Hanabusa was the strongest candidate for their party, and the situation got so bad that Obama and national party leaders weren't able to endorse one contender. Instead, they aired television ads and made automated telephone calls that asked voters to chose "a Democrat."
Djou will replace Democratic Rep. Daniel Abercrombie, who resigned after 10 terms to run for governor.
At one point, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee appeared ready to throw its support to Case, the cousin of AOL co-founder Steve Case.
That was until Hawaii's influential senior senator, Democrat Daniel Inouye, made it clear Hanabusa was his choice. He has scorned Case since the then-congressman ran against Hawaii's other senator, Democrat Daniel Akaka, in the 2006 primary.
In contrast, Djou enjoyed solid support from local and national Republicans, who funneled money to his campaign but took a much lower profile than their Democratic counterparts.
He burnished his conservative bona fides during the campaign, making appearances at Hawaii's tea party protest and on Fox News Channel for an interview with host Sean Hannity.
His message was clear: Taxes are too high, the federal government has grown too large, and wasteful government spending hinders economic prosperity.
Djou, the son of Asian immigrants, joined the Army Reserve after Sept. 11 and obtained the rank of captain. He has an Ivy League education and a law degree, served in the state Legislature and worked as a law school professor.
Djou's next political challenge will be in the November general election, when he will face only one Democratic nominee. That candidate will be chosen in the September primary election.
Democrats have expressed certainty that Djou will not be able to repeat in November when he will face a single Democratic candidate in the left-leaning district.
The likely candidates for the party will again be Hanabusa and Case. Hanabusa is a fourth-generation American of Japanese ancestry whose grandparents worked on a plantation and were interned by the U.S. government during World War II. Case, 57, is the oldest of six children and the cousin of AOL co-founder Steve Case.
Djou will be the first Republican to represent Hawaii in Congress since Rep. Pat Saiki left office in 1991.
The election was being conducted entirely by mail. Eleven other candidates were on the ballot, but none of them had a serious chance of contending.