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Djou Faces Hawaiian Electorate That’s More Pro-Democrat Than Pro-Incumbent

Even before Rep. Charles Djou (R-Hawaii) was sworn in Tuesday, less than a week after his special election victory against a pair of feuding Democrats, pundits were already debating whether he would be able to win a full term in November. One thing some believe will work in his favor is his incumbency — and conventional wisdom states that Hawaii is one of the most pro-incumbent states in the nation. But at least one political expert says what appears to be state voters’ pro-incumbency attitude is actually just a case of being pro-Democrat.

“Generally I don’t think it’s any different than the rest of the country, which votes incumbents in most of time,” said Neal Milner, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii. “I think what’s important about Hawaii is not incumbency, it’s how strong it is for the Democrats.”

Djou won May 22 with only 39.4 percent of the vote, while his two Democratic opponents split a combined 58.4 percent. The district he now represents, which mainly covers the Honolulu metropolitan area, is overwhelmingly Democratic — Obama bested McCain here 70-28 percent. Before Saturday, the district had also not previously elected a Republican since 1988, when Pat Saiki won what would be her only re-election campaign. Djou has history on his side: In the more than 50 years since Hawaii became the 50th state, its voters have never voted out an incumbent member of its congressional delegation. But before his election, just two of those incumbents were Republicans: Saiki and Sen. Hiram Fong.

While voters have soured nationally on incumbents, even in their own districts, Hawaiians have somewhat bucked the trend. In a poll released March 26, Rasmussen Reports found that 51 percent of state voters felt their local representative deserved re-election, while 28 did not. (The broader meaning of that poll, though, is dubious, since at the time of its release, Hawaii had only one representative in Congress, the popular Mazie Hirono.) They were evenly divided about incumbents nationally — 38 percent said it was better for most incumbents to be re-elected while 37 percent felt most incumbents should be defeated.

A national Rasmussen poll released February 9 — the poll released closest to the Hawaii one — showed a far more anti-incumbent electorate. Just 38 percent of voters thought their local representative deserved re-election, while 39 percent did not. Sixty-three percent felt it was better for most incumbents to lose re-election, while 19 percent disagreed.

The dynamics that have affected politics in the continental United States over the past year — particularly the emergence of the Tea Party movement — have not influenced Hawaii’s races to the same degree, Milner said.

“We haven’t had the degree of outside anger and anti-incumbency pressure that you see elsewhere,” he said. “I’m still a little bit skeptical about how much that’s going to make a difference by the time November rolls around nationally, but right now Hawaii doesn’t have that same kind of dynamic.”

That may change now, as the national parties appear poised to do battle over Djou’s seat.

“The national parties don’t even send people out here for the presidential elections,” Milner said. “It’s not worth the resources generally because they’re not close elections. So this really is different, and I think it’s going to change the nature of the campaign just since the National Republican Congressional Committee already did a lot of strategizing to affect the race between the two Democrats. This is not something that I’ve ever seen.”

While the state remains largely Democratic, Milner said, Djou has a chance of winning a full term if he runs the right kind of race.

“Djou’s a good campaigner,” Milner said. “I think he’s got options. None of them are particularly good, but they’re about as good as you’re going to get for a minority party there. One option is to try to mobilize the anger and get the independents to vote Republican. Another is to argue in ways that bring other left-leaning independents over to his party. The Republican base is small enough that he can’t rely on that, so he’s got to figure out other things. So one of the things is to see if he can mobilize some of that anger. But he’s not that kind of guy.”

The Democratic primary campaign continues to be nasty as tensions persist between former Rep. Ed Case and Sen. Daniel Inouye, who strongly backed state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa’s candidacy in the special election. If the Democrats remain divided up to the Sept. 18 primary, Djou may be able to exploit their divisions again, Milner said.

“The best thing Djou may have going for him is all the antagonism that the Democratic primary may create,” he said. “That may move independent voters, who already lean a little more to the right nationally than they did two years ago, into Djou’s camp. But he’s got a problem because of the numbers.”

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