GOP Says Aloha to 2010 Special Election

Posted December 14, 2009 at 6:43pm

Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s (Hawaii) imminent resignation has left his otherwise-safe Democratic House seat vulnerable to a takeover in a special election in the coming months.

Abercrombie’s announcement last week that he is leaving Congress early to focus on his 2010 gubernatorial campaign leaves Democrats in a bind and officials in Hawaii fumbling to figure out when to schedule a special election.

Abercrombie, who made his official announcement over the weekend, has declined to say when exactly he will leave Congress, only that he will set a date in the next few weeks.

“He’s told the leadership and he’s told the White House that his intention is to be here through the vote on health care, and he also has the Akaka bill,— Abercrombie spokesman Dave Helfert said.

It’s unclear when the bill sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), which essentially recognizes native Hawaiians with the same status as Native Americans, will be passed, but it is scheduled to be marked up in both the House and Senate this week. More importantly, it’s unclear when Democrats will bring health care legislation to the floor for final passage, and Abercrombie’s single vote could be pivotal in passing the bill.

Regardless of when the special election takes place, Abercrombie’s move has put the seat in play for Republicans. State law dictates that a special election would be a winner-take-all contest with candidates from all parties, and House Democrats already have two well-known candidates in the race.

Democrats win more often than Republicans in the Honolulu-based district, and President Barack Obama carried the district with 70 percent last year. However, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) only won the district with 53 percent in 2004. Without Obama on the ballot, a strong Republican candidate has a good shot in this district — especially with two Democrats dividing the party in a likely low-turnout special election.

Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou (R) has been running since 2007, and he had $268,000 in the bank at the end of September.

Former Rep. Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, the two Democrats who were already in the open-seat race, have said they plan to run in the special election as well.

“Neil’s mid-term resignation leaves an especially big puka in our delegation at a critical time for our Hawai‘i and country,— Case wrote in an e-mail hours after Abercrombie’s announcement. “With my seniority, experience, relationships and knowledge of current issues in Congress, I can and will hit the ground running from day one. Hawai‘i’s representation won’t miss a beat.—

Hanabusa also praised Abercrombie in a statement, then emphasized her intent to run in the special election.

“I commend Congressman Abercrombie for recognizing how vitally important it is that Hawaii have effective representation in Congress,— she wrote in an e-mail. “He put the needs of Hawaii’s people first — both today and during his entire tenure in Congress.—

Case represented Hawaii’s other Congressional district until 2006, when he left to challenge Akaka in a primary. A more moderate Democrat, Case has often insisted that he represents a centrist alternative to the liberal Democratic Party in Hawaii.

But national Democrats say there is still bad blood between Case and party leaders, who have not forgotten his Senate primary challenge. A Hanabusa supporter in Washington, D.C., even speculated that Akaka and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) were likely to support Hanabusa’s bid over Case because of that 2006 primary.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that Abercrombie could play a role in picking his successor. In a statement from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said Friday that he looked “forward to his help in filling the open seat in HI-01 with a Democrat who shares his commitment to fighting for the best interests of Hawaii’s middle class families.—

However, Abercrombie’s spokesman said it was unlikely that the Congressman would wade into a primary when he has his own Democratic primary for governor.

“He’s running for governor, and that’s a full-time job,— Helfert said. “I can’t imagine why he would mess around in any election for any other office.—

If Abercrombie announces his resignation date before Dec. 31, Democrats and Republicans will have a good sense of when the special election could be. However, if Abercrombie does not give a final date until after Dec. 31, the succession process could run into a small roadblock. The state elections official is leaving office at the end of December, and his vacancy could put a hiccup in planning a special election.

After Abercrombie sets a date, the governor has at least 70 days to set a special election.

What’s more, the state of Hawaii is facing a budget crisis, and local lawmakers were already concerned about how they could afford the regularly scheduled September primaries that will feature several contested and open-seat races. National Republicans are even planning for a situation where the special election could occur on the same day as the September primary.

With so much uncertainty in the state, National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Joanna Burgos said the committee is preparing for whatever happens.

“Right now, we’re planning for every possible scenario and ensuring that Charles Djou continues to be the frontrunner, regardless of when this election will be,— Burgos said.