Scott Brown's upset win in Massachusetts dealt a blow to the White House, but another special election loss could hit closer to home for President Obama -- literally.
At the end of February, Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who represented the Congressional district that includes Obama's birthplace of Honolulu, gave up his seat to run for governor of Hawaii. Under the unique circumstances of the May special election to replace him, there will be a three-way race featuring two Democrats, giving the lone Republican, Honolulu city councilman Charles Djou, a shot to take the seat with a simple plurality.
Djou's campaign argues that despite the Democratic nature of the state, it promises be a competitive race, and notes that George W. Bush received 47 percent of the vote in the district in 2004, and Republican Gov. Linda Lingle won nearly two-thirds of the vote there in 2006. While the Cook Political Report still considers the seat to "lean Democratic," it was previously considered safe.
If a Republican can win in the district representing Obama's birthplace, "then no Democratic seat in the U.S. Congress is safe," Djou said in an interview on Tuesday at a gathering of reporters in downtown Washington, trying to emphasize the significance of his race.
Djou, 38, was born and raised in Hawaii and graduated from Punahou School (the same high school as Obama) before moving stateside to gain degrees in economics and political science from the University of Pennsylvania and later a law degree from the University of Southern California. A practicing attorney, Djou first entered politics when he was elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives in 2000 and two years later joined the Honolulu city council.
In person, Djou seemed at ease discussing a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues, taking positions that one might expect from a Republican trying to strike a balance in a traditionally Democratic area. For instance, he talked about reducing capital gains taxes to spur economic growth and advocated a simpler tax code with lower rates and fewer exemptions. Yet when it came to abortion, he said he considered Roe v. Wade settled law, but supports parental notification, and opposes partial birth abortions as well as public funding of abortions. An officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, Djou favors allowing gays to openly serve in the military, but says that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Djou identified the budget crisis as the dominant issue in the campaign, and prominently features a national debt clock on his website. "The federal government spending trillions is bad enough," Djou said. "But government spending with no results is even worse."
While he strongly criticized many of President Obama's signature policies, including the health care push and the economic stimulus package, he's careful not to make the race about Obama. "I am not personally running against Obama," he said. "Barack Obama is not on the ballot."
Djou said that health care "is not as acute" an issue in Hawaii, where an employer mandate already exists. Just as Scott Brown maintained support for the Massachusetts health care system even while disavowing the similarly-structured national health care bill, Djou gave me a "a cautious yes" when asked if he supported the health care system in Hawaii. He reconciled his views by saying that ideally, he'd like to see the Hawaiian system superseded by some of the reforms that conservatives have been advocating, including tort reform, expansion of health savings accounts, interstate purchase of insurance, and allowing individuals the same tax advantages for purchasing insurance on their own as they do when purchasing through employers.
Asked about the type of measures he would support to fight the fiscal crisis, he mentioned earmark reform and a balanced budget amendment. In the abstract, he said he supported the idea of reining in entitlement spending, but was hesitant to discuss specifics. For instance, he said that President Bush had the right idea by addressing Social Security, and said the concept of voluntary personal accounts "deserves examination," but wasn't willing to say he supported a specific plan because he said that Democrats would take him out of context and attack him for wanting to destroy Social Security.
When it came to foreign policy, the generally cool-mannered Djou got particularly fired up when discussing North Korea. Kim Jong-Il is a "nutcase," he said, with 20 nuclear weapons capable of hitting Honolulu if the guidance systems are improved. Djou said that a disproportionate amount of attention has been put on the Iranian nuclear threat to the neglect of the situation in North Korea.
"If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fires a nuclear weapon and destroys Tel Aviv, that would be a terrible, terrible thing," he said. "But I'll be blunt. I'm far more concerned about a nuclear bomb landing in Honolulu."
Djou took issue with the Obama administration's call for direct talks with North Korea and favors the six-party approach. He called for an end to food aid and for the same level of pressure that's being put on Iran. Specifically, he said the military option should not be taken off the table. "We need to understand that [Kim Jong-Il] is a thug, and treat him like a thug," he said.
With regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, Djou said he believes that once America enters a conflict, it has to do everything it can to win. He said he supported the Iraq War at the time based on the reports that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. "If we knew then what we know now, I don't think a case could have been made to go in."
Djou said the United States had a moral and national security interest in maintaining strong ties to Israel. He said he supported President Bush's "roadmap" to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but believed that Israelis shouldn't be pressured into any concessions, particularly while the Palestinians are still divided among Hamas and Fatah. "I will defer to the Israelis," he said. "I appreciate Israel saying that Palestinians need to get their house in order. I think that is a reasonable negotiating position."
The special election is officially on May 22, but Djou said the effective election date is three weeks earlier. As a money-saving measure, Hawaii decided to hold an all mail-in election, and based on past experience, Djou expects about half of all ballots to be returned within 72 hours of being sent out on April 30, and 80 percent of them to be returned within the first week. He anticipates a close race, with the first and third place candidate separated by just single digits.
"This is a race you're going to want to pay attention to," Djou said.
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