A Republican Wins in Blue Hawaii. So What?

And so it ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

Yesterday, Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou, a Republican, won the special election in Hawaii's First Congressional District to replace Rep. Neil Abercrombie, breaking a Democratic streak that includes victories in all seven House special elections (N.Y.-20, Ill.-5, Calif.-32, Calif.-10, N.Y.-23, Fla.-19, Pa.-12) held since President Obama's inauguration 16 months ago.

Predictably, the GOP reacted by thumping its chest. "Charles's victory is evidence his conservative message of lowering the tax burden, job creation, and government accountability knows no party lines," said RNC chairman Michael Steele. "It is a message Americans want to hear from candidates across the country." In an effort to further inflate Djou's win, other Republicans have pointed out that the seat is located in Obama's hometown and that no Republican has won there in 20 years. 

All of which is well and good—in terms of spin. But how meaningful is Djou's victory, really? 

Not very. When Democrat Mark Critz upset Republican Tim Burns to win the late John Murtha's Pennsylvania spot in the House last week, liberals were quick to claim that the results portended a stronger than expected showing for Democrats in November. But we here at Gaggle world headquarters immediately noted the obvious:

In the right-leaning 12th, Critz's win was impressive, and given that it was the only race of the night that actually previewed November's key contests—a Democrat vs. a Republican in a swing district—it was perhaps the most revealing as well. Still, Critz won because he had strong union support in a low-turnout race, and he said he would've voted against health-care reform. Unless Dems think they can re-create these conditions everywhere else, they should probably keep their expectations for November relatively low.

The same idea—that "regardless of the larger forces at work, elections are ultimately all about specific candidates in specific environments"—applies in Hawaii as well. Sure, voters are upset with Washington. And yes, Djou ran a disciplined campaign. But his election says less about the national mood or the Republicanization of Honolulu than the particular conditions of the contest in question. Yesterday the Democratic vote was split between two feuding Democratic candidates: Colleen Hanabusa, who finished second with 30.8 percent of the vote, and former congressman Ed Case, who placed third with 27.6 percent. Because the race was winner-take-all, Djou was able to declare victory with a paltry 39.4 percent plurality—which is nearly 20 percentage points less than the combined Democratic vote of 58.4 percent. Needless to say, Djou wouldn't have stood a chance in a district that Obama won 70-28 if he'd faced a single Democratic foe.

Still, yesterday victory's is a nice little talking point for the GOP, which gets to boast about winning Obama's hometown for at least another few hours. The celebration will be short-lived, however. Abercrombie's term will expire in November, which means that Djou will be back on the ballot. And he won't have the same advantages he had this time. On Sept. 18, Hanabusa and Case face off in the Democratic primary. Unless two nominees somehow emerge, I suspect that Republicans will have their work cut out for them in November. 


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