As he works to defy the short-timer label that Democrats and many political pundits have already assigned to him, Rep. Charles Djou (R) has had little time to celebrate his late May special election victory in Hawaii’s 1st district.
Keeping his Democratic-leaning seat into the 112th Congress will require Djou to quickly demonstrate his independent bona fides, which is no easy task in one of the most partisan political environments in recent memory.
But that doesn’t mean Djou isn’t also taking up national GOP leaders on all the institutional support that they have to offer.
Djou has already been enrolled in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Patriot” program, which provides campaign finance and infrastructure support to targeted incumbents. A day after he arrived in Washington, D.C., ahead of the Memorial Day recess, the newest GOP Member also benefitted from a fundraiser headlined by top party brass. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) will hold another fundraiser for Djou this Wednesday, while Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) is set to hold a fundraiser for him next week.
One senior GOP leadership aide said Rogers, who serves as vice chairman of the NRCC’s incumbent retention effort, has taken a special interest in Djou.
“Mike Rogers understands that getting Charles Djou re-elected is the No. 1 priority,” the aide said. “Rogers has been effective in getting Djou to quickly shift to incumbent retention mode and has been a valuable resource in terms of maximizing constituent outreach.”
But Djou might want to be careful about getting too wrapped up in his party’s embrace.
“He’s already aligning himself with the same national Republican leaders that were funding his [special election] campaign,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Andy Stone said last week.
And that, Stone said, leaves Djou little room to be a true independent voice.
Democrats are convinced that the only reason they lost the Hawaii special election is because the state’s election laws turned the contest into a three-way race where two well-known Democrats split the party vote. Djou took just under 40 percent, while state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa (D) took 31 percent and former Rep. Ed Case (D) took about 28 percent. Democrats believe that in a one-on-one general election in a district that gave Honolulu-born President Barack Obama 70 percent of the vote in 2008, the seat will revert to Democratic control.
Until then, Stone said the DCCC will be watching Djou’s voting record to point out where he is blindly following his party rather than looking out for his constituents.
Djou said the DCCC won’t have much luck in that effort.
The Congressman said he’s already shown his independence from the party by supporting the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in one of his first votes. (He was just one of five House Republicans to support the repeal.) And while he’s waiting to see what comes out of the conference committee before making a final decision, he said, “If I have to buck them on financial services reform, so be it.”
Djou said that he’s thankful for the support he’s received so far from the national party but that it won’t influence him when he heads to the House floor to vote.
“If they ever condition my votes or my position on any policies on fundraising … then I don’t need their help,” he said.
Djou added that he doesn’t intend to become a part of the Washington social scene. After he finishes getting his office set up, he said he plans to fly back to Hawaii each week, a 24-hour round trip.
In a campaign memo last week, Djou’s polling team at the Tarrance Group acknowledged that the Congressman’s voting record will be his “most powerful advantage” heading into November. But the memo suggested a few other reasons for Republicans to have hope in Hawaii this fall. While Obama, with his family connections to the district, did exceedingly well in the 1st in 2008, the Tarrance Group memo points out that in the 2004 election, President George W. Bush took 47 percent in a much closer contest.
In addition, the memo says that in more than five decades, Hawaii voters have never unseated an incumbent federal officeholder — though of the 11 Representatives and five Senators who served during that time, only two were Republicans.
After Case announced in late May that he would not run in the September Democratic primary to compete in the general election, the Republican strategy of keeping Djou in office has centered on picking off enough Case voters to push Djou over the top in a head-to-head race with Hanabusa, the likely Democratic nominee. (The filing deadline is a month away.)
Hanabusa was supported in her campaign by the liberal leaders who make up much of the state’s Democratic establishment. Case, a former Blue Dog Democrat, tried to rally a more moderate coalition.
Republicans believe that with the country continuing to fight its way out of its deep economic crisis, Case supporters will give Djou a chance rather than blindly follow their party to line up behind Hanabusa.
“There’s a contrast on fiscal issues between Colleen Hanabusa and myself,” Djou said last week. “I have a clear record of fiscal responsibility. She does not.”
Rogers said he believes that’s the right strategy for Djou.
“People are pretty doggone mad at the Democrat wild spending spree here in Washington, D.C.,” Rogers said. “Democrats are mad at them. Independents are mad at them. Republicans are mad at them. … Djou doesn’t come here with a political calculation. He says he’s going to do what’s right for Hawaii. Perfect. He does that, he’s going to get re-elected.”
Rogers added that he hopes the DCCC, which spent more than $300,000 in the 1st district before making a strategic decision to pull out of Hawaii before the special election, spends even more money on the seat in the general election.
“They are going to waste every bit of it on this seat,” Rogers said.