Democrats won't budge in their family feud in this usually Democratic state, and that could result in Hawaii electing its first Republican congressman in decades.
The GOP is hoping to celebrate a victory by Charles Djou on Saturday in a special election against two Democrats — one a former congressman himself — who seem to be splitting their party's vote. Not only would that mean the loss of a Democratic seat in Congress, it would be an embarrassment for President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii and carried the state with 72 percent of the vote just two years ago.
"I think the people of Hawaii are learning, just as the American people are learning, that we do not have to follow the marching orders of the old boy network and the establishment," Djou said this week in a TV interview. "This congressional campaign is an opportunity for the voters of Hawaii to say we own this seat, not the Democratic Party."
Prominent Democrats acknowledge the possibility of losing the seat on Saturday.
"Yeah," was Rep. Chris Van Hollen's blunt response Thursday when asked if the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was writing off the special election. Van Hollen is the chairman of the committee.
"That would be a nightmare," John Waihee said at a recent news conference, standing alongside fellow Democratic Govs. Ben Cayetano and George Ariyoshi.
The former governors who ran Hawaii for most of the 1970s, '80s and '90s were unified in their message of voting for "a Democrat." But much like the rest of the party here, they were split on whom to support. Waihee and Ariyoshi back state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, while Cayetano favors former U.S. Rep. Ed Case.
And no one is backing off, which has led to infighting among Democrats locally and nationally, and left the door open for Djou.
Hanabusa, Djou and Case are the most well-known among 14 candidates seeking the seat from which longtime Democratic Rep. Neal Abercrombie resigned in late February to run for governor. Abercrombie has remained neutral in the congressional contest.
Voters who received ballots in the all-mail election almost three weeks ago have until Saturday to return them. While trailing in the polls, Hanabusa and Case and their supporters remain hopeful.
"I believe in Hanabusa," voter Walter Doi, 79, said.
The two Democrats are splitting their party's votes in a district where Abercrombie has won 10 general elections since 1990 with an average tally of 62 percent.
Case, a moderate Democrat who represented the 2nd Congressional District from late 2002 through 2006, remains scorned by Hawaii's senior Sen. Daniel Inouye and much of the state's Democratic establishment for unsuccessfully challenging the 2006 re-election of the state's junior senator, Daniel Akaka.
"This election is a referendum on change for a stagnant political culture right here at home," Case, in a veiled reference to party regulars, said in a final debate last week.
Those leaders are backing the more liberal Hanabusa. Despite universal support from Hawaii's powerful labor unions, she has struggled in voter polls.
That led the DCCC, the national party and the White House to not-so-subtly favor Case — infuriating Inouye and prodding his preferred candidate, Hanabusa, to refuse a graceful exit.
"I'm in this race until the end, and I'm in this race to win," Hanabusa told supporters earlier this month.
Several Democratic voters say they have tuned out the party bickering. Other were left disappointed.
"I thought there'd be unity," said Bob Belmes, 54, a Case supporter.
Voter Sydney Iaukea, 40, said the infighting took the spotlight off the candidates' policy differences. The involvement of Inouye and other Democratic leaders in openly backing Hanabusa also bothered Iaukea.
"By showing their strength, it was almost a weakness," she said.
Djou has run a disciplined campaign focused on taxes and government spending at a time when Hawaii's tourism-driven economy remains troubled. He bashes Obama's health care and economic stimulus policies, and in a radio interview last month said he is running to take the "exact opposite" positions from Obama.
At other times, Djou has proclaimed respect for a president who is hugely popular in the state.
"When the president is right, I'll stand with him. And when he's wrong, I'll say so," Djou said.
A now-suspended DCCC ad effort costing more than $300,000 castigated Djou but failed to identify either Case or Hanabusa as an alternative.
Obama recorded automated "robocalls" and had his name on DNC e-mails that went out to thousands of voters. But the president's message — a vague request to select "a Democrat" — seemed similarly muddled.
If nothing else, the contest has generated strong voter interest. An estimated 46 percent of the ballots have been returned as of Wednesday — far higher than the 13.3 percent who voted at traditional polling places during the last special congressional election here in 2002 when Case won easily with 51 percent of the vote.
A Djou victory could very well be reversed in November's balloting for a full congressional term, when he will be matched up against only one Democrat — most likely Case or Hanabusa — in what will still be a strongly Democratic district representing urban Honolulu.
Associated Press Writer Mark Niesse in Honolulu and Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.
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