Charles Djou: Incumbent, underdog
By Aaron Blake
Newly elected Hawaii Republican Rep. Charles Djou knows what it's like to be a challenger and an open seat candidate, and underdog and a favorite, a nobody and the toast of the town.
And that's just in the last two months.
Now, Djou enters a new stage in his political career: embattled incumbent. After easily winning a three-way special election in the more conservative -- but still dang Democratic -- House district in a May 22 special election, Djou enters an abbreviated 2010 reelection campaign as one of a handful of deeply endangered GOP incumbents.
That's just fine with him, and nobody will accuse Djou of being ill-prepared. "The only way I know how to campaign is running a race where I'm down by two points and closing in," he said in a recent interview with the Fix.
This is after all the man who, when it looked like Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) would run for governor, decided to start his campaign three years in advance of the vote.
Preparation paid off. And, so did a little luck as a pair of Democrats split their party's votes, while Djou was the only Republican in the field -- consolidating the Republican vote and winning over a fair number of independents along the way too.
Djou's 39 percent showing was hardly the stuff of landlsides and, unlike in the special election, he will have only one Democratic opponent in November: state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa. (Former Rep. Ed Case announced last month he would not run again in the fall.)
Hanabusa' candidacy is good news for him, insisted Djou. "Yes; no qualification," Djou said. "With Ed, he's a Blue Dog. Drawing contrasts on the issues would have been more challenging for me."
Regardless of his opponent, Djou's margin for error is almost nonexistent in a two-way race. He is running in a historically left-leaning district in which Democrats took nearly 60 percent of the vote in the May special election.
At the same time, it's perhaps not as liberal as some in the press assumed in the runup to the special election.
The seat, which is dominated by the city of Honolulu, has a strong military presence and plenty of high-income voters; it went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential race by just 6 points. While the state's politics are heavily Democratic, voters there will vote for a Republican with the right profile - i.e. someone like Djou or Gov. Linda Lingle (R) who carried it in 2002 and 2006.
They will also routinely send politicians back to the offices to which they have been elected -- a voting pattern that works in Djou's favor.
"Hawaii has never kicked out an incumbent member of Congress in the history of the state," Djou pointed out. "And I have absolutely no plans of being the first."
But past isn't always prologue. And being an incumbent -- especially a Republican one in Hawaii -- in such an anti-incumbent and polarized election environment may not portend the same advantage this cycle as it has for the past 50 years.
Djou has quickly been forced into a series of tough votes and shown a willingness to flex his bipartisan muscles. After voting with Democrats to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for gays in the military, Djou last week voted against their financial regulatory reform bill.
"That will become, I suspect, a major issue in the campaign," said a Democratic strategist familiar with the race, pointing out that Hanabusa ran an ad on the Wall Street reform bill during the special election.
Djou impressed Republican leaders for the kind of campaign he ran, and his special election showing backed that up. Now, though, he faces a completely different race from a completely different perspective.
If being prepared is half the battle, then Djou has a good start. But he, like Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, can't control much of what will determine his fate. Djou will have to separate himself from his party frequently and hope that the GOP brand, which still isn't a particularly good thing in the Aloha State, doesn't sink his hopes for a full term.
July 7, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Save & Share: Previous: The Fix breaks
Next: W.Va. Gov. Joe Manchin to push for 2010 special election to replace Byrd
Posted by: Brigade | July 7, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ceflynline | July 7, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: tuber | July 7, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: mark_in_austin | July 7, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bsimon1 | July 7, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: tuber | July 7, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bsimon1 | July 7, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: margaretmeyers | July 7, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: drindl | July 7, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: tuber | July 7, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: drindl | July 7, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bsimon1 | July 7, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: drindl | July 7, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bsimon1 | July 7, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.