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GOP Has Big Mauna to Climb in Hawaii

Correction Appended

With Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s (D) sights set on the governor’s mansion in 2010, a long list of interested Democrats are contemplating the open-seat race in Hawaii’s 1st district.

Democrats are heavily favored to hold the seat, although Republicans are high on Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou, who has established himself as the party’s presumptive nominee.

Meanwhile, early indications suggest there will be no shortage of Democrats vying for their party’s nomination.

Among the names discussed, only former Rep. Ed Case (D) has formally announced his candidacy. He abdicated his 2nd district seat to run against popular Sen. Daniel Akaka (D) in the 2006 primary, a race he lost by 10 points.

Other potential Democratic candidates include state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, former state House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell and Democratic Chairman Brian Schatz.

Dan Boylan, a political columnist and professor of history at University of Hawaii West Oahu, said that a contentious Democratic primary is unlikely to damage the eventual nominee’s chances in a state that usually favors Democrats.

“A crowded field seldom hurts Democrats in this state,— Boylan said. “We are so Democratic, despite our Republican governor [Linda Lingle].—

Chuck Freedman, communications director for the Hawaii Democratic Party, echoed this sentiment, noting that whoever emerges from the primary battle will have proved his or her mettle in the process.

“We have many, many times had a crowded Democratic primary, and the experience in the most part is that it gives us strength in the general,— he said.

Although he acknowledged that his candidate faces some stiff odds, Djou’s campaign manager, Dylan Nonaka, pointed to what he said are overlooked indicators that Djou could surprise those who have counted him out.

He said the district is “much friendlier to Republicans than the state is— and noted President George W. Bush’s strong showing in 2004, when he garnered 47 percent of the vote in the 1st district.

“We see it as a much more competitive race than some outsiders might see it as,— Nonaka said.

Nonaka also suggested that Case, who some see as the Democratic frontrunner based on his name recognition and experience, may have undercut himself by unsuccessfully challenging Akaka in 2006.

“The culture here in Hawaii is a very respectful culture,— Nonaka said. “The Democratic base, especially in the more rural areas, saw that as a blatant sign of disrespect.—

Boylan said Case may have alienated himself from more traditional-minded voters and he may have endangered his chances of winning the support of organized labor unions, which are seen as crucial to the success of Democratic candidates. Still, he predicted that Case will remain a formidable candidate, particularly among younger voters who are less steeped in the island’s culture.

“I think it will hurt him among hard-core Democrats who didn’t think his challenge to Akaka constituted respect for an older person,— he said. “But for a lot of people, Ed was seen as a shining light, a reformer.—

Also working against Djou is the enormous popularity of President Barack Obama, who spent his formative years in Hawaii. Boylan said that residents of Hawaii, a state whose size and remoteness from the continental United States often marginalize it in national debates, feel “enormous pride— for its native son.

Freedman pointed to a surge in voter participation in Hawaii that paralleled Obama-influenced turnout across the country. The number of registered Democrats in the state more than doubled after the 2008 presidential caucus, from 21,000 to 58,000.

“We had a lot of people who weren’t card-carrying Democrats and who hadn’t found the fire and the passion— prior to Obama’s emergence as a national figure, Freedman said.

Nonaka questioned the extent to which Obama will affect the race, saying that the president will be busy with more pressing matters than getting involved in a Congressional race in Hawaii.

“We’re not running against Obama,— Nonaka said.

As will undoubtedly be true for almost every contest in 2010, the economy will factor heavily into the debate in the open-seat race. The state is grappling with a revenue shortfall, exacerbated by a sputtering tourism industry that has long been a mainstay of income.

In response to the state’s financial woes, Djou has advocated curtailing expenditures by shrinking the state budget and scaling back government programs. He has been a vocal critic of Hannemann’s proposal of a 20-mile elevated rail line that would run throughout Honolulu. Hannemann has said the jobs needed to construct the rail system would stimulate the economy, while Djou has charged that the cost would outstrip the job-related benefits.

“Charles is trying to make it understood that you can’t solve all your problems by raising taxes,— said Jim Bryan, a spokesman for the Hawaii Republican Party. “It’s going to hurt people further who have already suffered from this economy.—

Freedman countered by arguing that Democrats are more attuned to the needs of voters than their GOP counterparts.

“I think that working people have a belief out there that the Democratic Party and people who run as Democrats understand their plight,— he said.

Boylan praised Djou as a capable, intelligent leader. However, he said the councilman’s party affiliation is a big albatross.

“He’s a strong candidate, but when you’re a strong candidate on a rowboat you’re in trouble,— Boylan said. “The Republicans have a rowboat; the Democrats are in a battleship.—

Correction: July 7, 2009

One of the Democratic candidates mentioned for Abercrombie’s seat, Duke Bainum, died in June.

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