For Dems, 50th State Becomes Hawaii Uh-Oh

It was either a freak political event or a message to Washington -- or both -- that catapulted Republican Charles Djou to Congress in May, representing the liberal 1st Congressional District of Hawaii. Since then, he's had plenty of time to ponder his political mortality.

When the House is in session, Djou spends a full day each week making the 9,000 mile round-trip flight between Washington, D.C. and Hawaii.

"I try to spend 72 hours a week in D.C., 72 hours a week in Honolulu and I literally live 24 hours a week, once a week, each and every week, in an airplane," Djou said.

Democrats in Hawaii have been pondering their political mortality too and wondering how a district that voted 70 percent for Barack Obama in 2008 has become a toss-up where a Republican might win.

After long-time Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, resigned to focus on his bid for governor, two Democrats insisted on running in a special election in May, to replace him. It became a high-stakes game of chicken between former U.S. Rep. Ed Case and Hawaii Senate President Colleen Hanabusa. Neither blinked, and they split the Democratic vote. That made it possible for Djou (pronounced duh-JOO) a former Honolulu city councilman, to win.

Democrats immediately vowed to take back the seat come November. "The majority of voters in the district supported Democratic candidates in this special election," Abercrombie said in a statement released after Djou's win. "I am confident that a Democrat will win the Congressional race in the general election."

But that confidence has slowly eroded. Hanabusa is now the only Democrat vying for the seat. Polls show she and Djou locked in a statistical dead heat.

"This is one [seat] that Democrats thought they were going to win back easily," said Isaac Wood, House race editor at Sabato's Crystal Ball, part of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "But now that victory in Hawaii doesn't seem so secure."

Surprise: Hawaii House Race Too Close To Call

No incumbent candidate for federal office in Hawaii, Democrat or Republican, has ever lost in the history of the state -- so Djou has history on his side. But Democrats are quick to point to the fact that President Obama won the district -- which includes the President's hometown of Honolulu -- with more than two-thirds of the vote in 2008. "It is a Democratic district, in a Democratic state," said Richard Rapoza, Hanabusa's director of communications.

Political prognosticators say despite the Democratic makeup of the district, the race is truly a toss-up.

"I think that with a week to go [Djou] definitely has a fighting chance of winning a full term," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report. "Neither of them have it in the bag."

So what's the case a Republican is making to a district that's anything but? Independence.

"For me, it's not so much about party, it's about what I believe is in the best interest of the people of Hawaii and I will always vote with Hawaii," Djou said in an interview, rattling off a list of issues on which he has broken with his party in the short time he's been in Congress. One that stood out: he voted in favor of ending the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibits gays from serving openly in the military.

But Djou also isn't shy about emphasizing his Republican views on the economy: he views the stimulus as a failure, wants Congress to spend a lot less, supports a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and supports the extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts.

Djou has "essentially been very candid and straightforward about his Republican principles. And, love 'em or hate 'em, they're out there pretty clear," said Neal Milner, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa "He's not an angry Republican and he's not a social conservative," he said. "And he's just kind of naturally comfortable with people."

Democrats have focused on specific issues. "This race has always been close, but in the closing days of the campaign ... it'll become clear that the reason Charles Djou has spent this entire campaign avoiding talking about his record is because he can't defend his votes against Wall Street reform, against emergency unemployment benefits and against critical funds for Hawaii schools," said Andy Stone, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a statement. However the mood of the district, more than issues, may be the decisive factor in the race.

Djou, a lawyer and a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, believes that the anti-establishment feeling in his district helps his prospects.

"The people here in Hawaii are very frustrated, upset with the direction Congress is taking our nation," he said. "What really gets my constituents upset is the fact that the Congress has spent all this money ... and unemployment still remains high, the economy hasn't gotten turned around and we're still in an economic rut," he said.

Does Aloha Mean Good-Bye for Hawaii Democrats?

But it's not just the mood of the district that gives Djou a fighting chance, outside analysts say. It's also the dysfunction of the Democrats.

"The most interesting thing I've found about this race is how listless the Democrats have been here," Milner, the professor, said. "This was the Democrats election to lose, basically, and they just haven't caught on."

Rapoza, Hanabusa's spokesman, insisted the campaign was going well. "We're happy with where we are right now. Colleen is getting a great response in the community which is how we gauge how well we're doing," he said.

But the memory of that three-way special election remains. "I think the Democrats made everyone a little uneasy with their infighting," Wood, the analyst from the University of Virginia explained. "There are some Democrats who are not really ready to hop back on the Hanabusa train yet."

For his part, the Congressman hopes to retain his seat on November 2nd and get back to his extended commute, reading constituent casework on the 12-hour flights to Honolulu and preparing for committee hearings on flights back to Washington, D.C. Djou admits however that he sometimes does something besides work while he's up in the air.

"The reality is you know being a member of Congress can be very busy," he said. "So one of the very few – and I mean very few – nice things about flying that much is I actually can sleep."