Updated: 1:11 a.m.
Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou was elected Saturday to fill a vacant Congressional district in Hawaii, giving Republicans a much-needed if fortuitous win in an unusual race that divided Democrats.
With 170,000 votes counted in Hawaii’s 1st district, Djou had 40 percent of the vote to 31 percent for state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa (D) and 28 percent for former Rep. Ed Case (D) in the vote-by-mail election.
“Tonight, my friends, is a milestone — it is a milestone in Hawaii and American history,” Djou told cheering supporters at his victory party. “Tonight, my friends, a seat which had been held by one political party for 20 years is about to change hands.”
Djou will succeed Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D), who resigned in February to concentrate on his gubernatorial bid. Djou will become the first Republican to represent Hawaii in nearly two decades and only the third since statehood 51 years ago.
Republicans were eager to claim momentum from Djou’s victory just four days after their stunning, sound defeat in a special election in Pennsylvania. Before Saturday, Republicans hadn’t won a special election in a vacant Democratic district since 2001.
“Charles Djou’s victory not only changes the makeup of the House of Representatives, but it helps Republicans move one step closer toward winning back the majority in November,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said in a statement.
Democrats downplayed the result, noting that Democratic votes outnumbered Republican votes, and the party feels confident it will reverse the outcome in November, when Djou will presumably face off against Case or Hanabusa in a traditional one-on-one race. President Barack Obama grew up in the Honolulu-based district, which he carried with 70 percent of the vote in 2008 — his second-highest percentage in a district now represented by a Republican. Obama won freshman Rep. Ahn “Joseph” Cao’s New Orleans-based district with 75 percent of the vote.
“We are very pleased and we are energized to start all over again,” Hanabusa said on KITV, the ABC affiliate in Honolulu. “I believe that the 1st Congressional still remains Democratically inclined, as evidenced by the results of tonight’s election.”
The special election was punctuated by the inability of Democratic officials to persuade one of the two Democrats to withdraw in the interest of party unity. Case, who represented Hawaii’s 2nd district from 2002 to 2007, touted his federal experience and said he was the only Democrat who could beat Djou.
But Hawaii Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka backed Hanabusa, a more liberal candidate, and scarcely concealed their scorn for Case, who ran against Akaka in the 2006 Senate Democratic primary.
The DCCC weighed throwing its public support to Case, whom it viewed as the more electable Democrat. But House Democrats effectively conceded the race two weeks ago, saying it would be futile to continue spending money to win the seat amid Democratic disunity. The DCCC spent $314,000 on independent expenditures in the race through early May.
Case made clear in his remarks Saturday night that he is moving on to the September primary campaign, which could be just as fractious for the party.
“Monday morning, we’re going to be back on the street and we’re going to be thanking the voters of Hawaii for their consideration,” Case said. “And by the way, we are going to be starting that next campaign.”
Djou, 39, has been a Hawaii officeholder for nearly a decade. He was elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives in 2000, unseating the Democrat who beat him two years earlier, and in 2002 was elected to the first of two four-year terms on the Honolulu City Council. He prepared exceptionally early to run for this seat in Congress, filing candidacy papers in November 2007.
Upon Djou’s swearing-in, the House will have 255 Democrats and 177 Republicans. There are three vacancies: formerly Republican-held districts in Georgia and Indiana, and in a formerly Democratic-held district in New York. The Republicans need a net gain of 39 seats to win a 218-seat majority in the House.