Hawaii is one of the more Democrat-friendly states in the Union. Outside of the District of Columbia, President Obama enjoys his strongest job approval ratings in the Aloha State – having spent his early childhood there. A January 2 – July 30 Gallup poll of 90,000 adults nation wide put Hawaii’s approval of the President’s job handling at 68 percent, well above the national average. That makes it even stranger, if not unforeseen, that Republican candidates for national office have pulled even with their Democratic challengers in recent weeks.
In a May 22, 2010 special election to replace departing Rep. Neil Abercrombie, Republican Rep. Charles Djou defeated his two primary Democratic opponents, state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa and former Rep. Ed Case to become the first Republican to represent the district in 20 years.
Djou’s win was written off for a number of reasons; he faced two Democratic candidates that split the Democratic vote and allowed the Republican to pick up a 39 percent plurality, the DCCC pulled money out of that race ten days prior to the election, the vote took place on a Saturday and 6 hours behind the national media cycle, et cetera. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza summarized the many reasons why Djou’s win was a fluke.
Hawaii’s 1st district is President Obama’s home district. 70 percent of the district voted for the President in 2008. Few were giving Djou a chance to retain the seat when the general election came around. The conventional wisdom was that in a two-way race, the Democrat would affect a natural correction and retake the district. In fact, it is one of the few U.S. House seats, along with Louisiana’s 2nd district and Delaware’s at-large district, which the Democratic party was counting on flipping in November. Then Public Policy Polling released a survey yesterday, taken October 2 -3 and sponsored by the liberal blog Daily Kos, which gave Hanabusa 48 to Djou’s 47 percent of the vote with 5 percent undecided. In that poll, a staggering 61 percent of independent voters are breaking for Djou to Hanabusa’s 31 percent.
While Djou is technically the incumbent in this race, Hanabusa was originally so highly favored that her polling under 50 percent is as troubling for the Democrats as Djou’s 47 percent of support in this poll is encouraging for Republicans. Undecideds tend to break towards the challenger in any race, but in a wave election where analysts like Jay Cost are predicting that Republicans could win as many as 3 in 5 undecided voters, this poll suggests that Djou is in a good position to win a majority of the vote on Election Day.
Djou has recently aired an effective ad that features Hanabusa in a recent candidate forum saying “I can tell you right now, in government, I don’t think there’s waste, per se.” This is a difficult message to run on in 2010. Hanabusa’s camp came out swinging against the ad, saying Djou had taken the remark out of context. While the comment drew groans from the crowd, Hanabusa went on to clarify that she was referring to the state government – that clarification was omitted from the Djou ad. Hanabusa’s camp has released their own ad scheduled to begin airing this Saturday in which she criticizes Djou for voting against HR 1586, the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act which provided emergency stimulus to the education sector. The Hawaii state GOP held a press conference on Tuesday to refute the claims made in Hanabusa’s ad.
Republican prospects in Hawaii don’t end at the congressional level. Hawaii has a term-limited Republican Governor in Linda Lingle. In the race to replace her, former Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie faces Republican nominee and Lieutenant Gov. James “Duke” Aiona. The same Public Policy Polling survey which found Djou near even with Hanabusa found the governor’s race dead even – 48 to 48 percent. And like the 1st district, independents fall into Aiona’s camp 62 to 34 percent. Critics of the the PPP poll’s findings in the governor’s race say the survey too heavily sampled Oahu at the expense of the other islands. However, the 1st District, which includes Honolulu, was the district Abercrombie represented for almost 20 years. If Abercrombie’s lead has shrunk to under 50 percent in this district, he should be concerned about his electoral prospects.
Abercrombie had solid leads in every poll taken over the summer. An August 10 - 17 poll from the Hawaii Star-Advertiser of likely voters gave Abercrombie a 53 to 41 percent lead over Aiona prior to the contested Democratic primary. Abercrombie has been laying low since his primary win. Aiona believes this poll represents a repudiation of that strategy.
For every poll that tempers Republican enthusiasm in a given race, another poll appears that opens up the possibility of Republican gains where none existed a week before. Even in Hawaii, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, the Republican “wave” is set to crash on shore. While residents of this state are somewhat accustomed to tsunamis, the scale of this one should come as a surprise.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org