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DCCC Weighs Picking Sides in Hawaii Contest

House Democrats are considering backing former Rep. Ed Case in Hawaii’s competitive winner-take-all special election next month, a move that would run counter to the endorsements of the Aloha State’s two Senators.

Several sources with knowledge of the situation said that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is inclined to support Case over state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who has the support of Hawaii Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, organized labor and EMILY’s List.

The contest carries high stakes for Democrats, given that the district is where President Barack Obama spent his formative years and it typically votes overwhelmingly for Democrats. But since the May 22 mail-in election is winner-take-all and features two well-known Democrats, there is an opening for Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou to be competitive and give the GOP a shot at pulling off a major upset.

There is plenty of residual bad blood between Case and the two Senators because of the former Congressman’s failed 2006 primary bid against Akaka. In the Aloha State, Case’s challenge was viewed as disrespectful by the two Senators, and the disdain between the two camps is palpable.

“That is a big deal out there,” said a source close to the delegation. “Both the Senators have been with Colleen Hanabusa since Day One. That’s unusual, to say the least. That shows there’s a lot of personal feeling in this.”

Although Case leads both Hanabusa and Djou in the most recent public poll, Hanabusa has a huge fundraising advantage over the former Congressman. She is expected to report raising more than $400,000 in the first quarter of 2010. Meanwhile, Case — who did not return a request for an interview for this story — is notorious for weak fundraising and reported having only $139,000 in the bank at the end of December.

A spokeswoman for the DCCC declined to say whether the committee was picking Case’s side in the special election.

“The DCCC doesn’t comment on the internal workings of the committee. What we are focused on is making sure Hawaii voters know about Charles Djou’s record of supporting corporate special interests over Hawaii’s families,” spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.

But according to sources familiar with the committee’s considerations, national Democrats see several weaknesses in Hanabusa’s candidacy stemming mostly from her tenure in the state Legislature.

Hanabusa’s second campaign spot of the cycle, for example, boasted she “cut legislative salaries,” but she was maligned in the press last week for taking a pay raise while she made the cut.

Hanabusa spokesman Eric Hamakawa said the campaign was likely going to change the spot soon but insisted that the ad’s claim was still accurate.

“We understand there’s some concern about that, and we’re sensitive to that,” he said. “I think we’re going to respond by redoing the ad.”

Hamakawa said he would be “very surprised” if the DCCC supported Case over Hanabusa. However, he added that since a representative from the DCCC met with the campaign in January, their contact with the committee has been limited to a couple of phone calls with their regional political director.

“Over the last couple of months, I think we’ve shown that we have the best organization on the ground,” he said. “I don’t think Ed has that kind of capacity to fundraise. I don’t think Ed has the capacity to have this kind of ground game.”

If the DCCC decides to fully support Case, there likely won’t be a formal press conference. Instead the committee could aid his candidacy through other means such as an independent expenditure on his behalf, fundraising and extra staffing support.

“When the DCCC gets involved, as you can see, in a special election — the New York specials were all single candidates — but they’re very involved,” Democratic consultant Achim Bergmann said. “They’re incredibly engaged with the campaign team. … They were really the driving force behind those New York special election victories.”

In his previous bids in Hawaii’s other Congressional district, Case was known for running and implementing much of his own campaign strategy and using local vendors. This time around, he’s tapped a top-notch team of nationally known consultants including Fred Yang of Hart Research to do his polling, Devine Mulvey to do his advertising and Karen Petel to do his mail. Case also recently hired Jason Burke, a seasoned campaign operative from the mainland, to help him with his bid.

The most recent public poll, done in January, showed Case with a 12-point lead in the race. The Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey paid for by two local news organizations showed Case with 37 percent, Hanabusa with 25 percent and Djou with 17 percent.

However, given that none of the candidates were on television yet, that poll can hardly be considered still accurate. A survey from Case’s pollster, Yang, was in the field this week and tested messaging for the former Congressman.

Another Democrat with knowledge of the situation commented that the party was still looking to the White House for guidance given that the special election is in Obama’s home district, and the president is extremely popular in the state.

“If a Republicans wins, the narrative will not be good following Massachusetts,” said the source. “I think that there are people in Hawaii looking for guidance from the White House.”

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