HONOLULU (AP) — A fill–in Republican congressman has a shot at winning a full–term job in Hawaii, a Democratic stronghold and President Barack Obama's birth state.
Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, who is the incumbent after winning a May special election, has entrenched himself in the office by voting against all tax increases, opposing big government spending and tapping voter anxiety about the country's direction.
But the tight race could tip either way because Djou was elected without a majority in the vote–by–mail contest earlier this year. Djou earned 40 percent of the vote, and Democratic support split between his opponent in Tuesday's election, state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, and several other candidates.
Democrats dominate Hawaii politics — including this urban Honolulu congressional seat for 19 years before Djou was elected — but voters have never ousted a congressional incumbent in 51 years since statehood.
The election also will be viewed as a reflection on Obama, who was supported by 72 percent of Hawaii voters two years ago, the highest rate of any state.
Djou, a 40–year–old Army reservist whose father fled Communist China, has emphasized the need to reign in federal debts throughout the campaign, frequently returning to his refrain that the nation can't afford Democrats' policies of "spend, spend and spend some more."
"These monster–size deficits, if we don't take care of them, they will take care of us," Djou said at a recent debate. "We're just going out and spending money like it's going out of style. We must change this now."
Hanabusa, the first Asian–American woman in the nation to preside over a state legislative body, blames Djou for voting "no" to government spending that she says could save jobs and boost the economy. She unapologetically supports the new health care reform law, unemployment benefit extensions and stimulus programs.
"You don't just vote 'no' because you want to vote 'no.' You have to think about how it affects the people," said Hanabusa, 59, at a campaign dinner. "We'll make sure we get the biggest bang for our buck."
Djou rose to power after former Democratic U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie announced in December he would resign to run for governor.
In the prolonged campaign since, Djou has pitched himself as a model of fiscal responsibility while Hanabusa has attempted to paint him as part of the Republican establishment that doesn't represent Hawaii.
Both candidates aimed their campaigns at voters upset with the economy, with Republicans claiming Hanabusa would perpetuate existing federal policies and Democrats attacking Djou's opposition to expensive legislation intended to create jobs.
Hawaii had the nation's ninth–highest foreclosure rate in the country in the third quarter, but unemployment dipped to 6.3 percent in September compared to 9.2 percent nationwide. Island tourism is still in the doldrums, but appears to be rebounding.
"I haven't seen enough improvements from stimulus spending," said Mike Ellis of Honolulu after casting an early ballot for Djou on Tuesday. "If we haven't used it, we should give that money back."
Other voters like John DePew said they don't trust Djou to be an independent voice in Washington.
"The voter sentiment is to throw the bums out," said DePew of Honolulu after voting for Hanabusa. "Seeing how much mainland money has flowed into his campaign, it shows where his loyalties lie."
Obama got into the race himself with a TV ad for Hanabusa that tries to draw on his island ties to get a fellow Democrat elected.
"Colleen's values are Hawaii's values. They're the values I learned growing up," Obama says in the ad. "Hawaii needs Colleen in Congress, and I need her in Washington."