GOP threw gasoline on Hawaii fires

May 24, 2010

Six months ago, a bitter intra-party fight cost the GOP a House seat in an upstate New York special election.

As it turns out, House Republicans learned a few lessons from the experience. And on Saturday, they put some of that hard-won knowledge to work in Republican Charles Djou’s special election victory in Hawaii’s heavily Democratic 1st District.

While there were very few similarities between the two races—the New York race was marked by an ideological fight while the Hawaii contest turned on local personalities—the end result in both was that a fractured field cost each party control of a House seat.

In Saturday’s Hawaii special election, Washington Republicans explicitly attempted to fuel local Democratic Party discord surrounding the two top candidates, former Rep. Ed Case, the candidate whom the National Republican Congressional Committee and Democratic Congressional Committee alike determined posed the greatest threat to Djou in a three-way race, and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who was the choice of the state Democratic establishment.

Mapping out their plan of attack in nightly Hawaii-focused 7:00 pm meetings, top NRCC brass sought ways to exploit the hard feelings that still remained from Case’s 2006 primary challenge to Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka—a move that rankles many Hawaii Democrats to this day.

In one instance Djou media advisor Ben Burger worked with NRCC officials to craft a 30-second TV ad that asserted Case missed many votes “while campaigning against Senator Akaka.”
The Hawaii Republican Party, for its part, put out a mailer needling Case on “Integrity”—a not so-subtle jab at his 2006 Senate primary challenge, which Akaka and powerful senior Sen. Daniel Inouye insist took place despite a promise to them that he would not challenge Akaka.

Case contends that he responded at the time that he would not rule out a Senate run.

John Peschong, a GOP strategist who is a veteran of Hawaii races, said the offensive bruised Case and left him unable to muster a solid base of support—Djou won Saturday 39 percent to 30 percent for Hanabusa, while Case finished third with 27 percent.

“The Republicans’ on-point messages combined with the bad blood between Case and Hanabusa that has existed since Case challenged Senator Daniel Akaka, never allowed Case to find his niche in this race, and therefore, he was never able to develop a base or a strong following,” said Peschong.

The other plank in the GOP’s anti-Case strategy: remind Democratic voters of Case’s apostasy on key issues.

Djou’s final TV ad sought to brand Case as an unreliable Democrat—a case that many of his Democratic critics had made before—noting that the former congressman had called himself an “Independent, now a strong Democrat, and even a conservative.”

“Hawaii just can’t trust Ed Case,” the ad ended ominously.

The NRCC, for its part, provided to reporters a steady stream of opposition research detailing his support for the PATRIOT Act, the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq war, and for holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The committee also highlighted that Case had attended meetings with conservatives during Social Security reform talks.

In an effort to fan liberal anger, NRCC operatives at one point tailored their efforts Case’s moderate record to left-leaning blogs that they believed would amplify their message to Democratic voters.

“We remembered all too vividly just what kind of impact the blogosphere had on the New York race—and in many cases the anger wasn’t unwarranted,” explained one GOP strategist familiar with the party’s Hawaii effort. “There was definitely a sense in the room that if we could further inflame the ideological divide between the two candidates, we could return the favor and deny Case of the liberal coalition he needed to win.”

In its effort to aide Djou, the NRCC and Republican National Committee adopted an wide-ranging—though almost entirely invisible—role. Party officials concluded that, with the Republican brand deeply unpopular in the heavily Democratic state, the national party needed to fly beneath the radar.

Party officials determined what while they would not air TV ads in the district—saving the heavy spending for the party’s ultimately failed effort to win a Pennsylvania special election race earlier in the week—they would dispatch NRCC and RNC officials to coordinate GOP voter identification and mobilization drives that had never before been conducted in Hawaii.

The NRCC, which spent over $30,000 on polling in the race, led daily campaign calls to coordinate Djou’s message, while the RNC housed a get out the vote call center from its D.C. headquarters, which made at least 20,000 calls into Hawaii, despite the six-hour time difference.

House GOP leaders, meanwhile, directed $115,000 in member donations to Djou’s campaign and the NRCC helped to oversee a political action committee fundraising effort that netted over $100,000 for the Hawaii Republican.

“This race was not a slam dunk,” said the GOP strategist. “The goal from the outset was to fan the flames on the liberal left and provide a direct line of attack for Hanabusa to level against Case while strengthening Charles’ position with Republicans and moderates. Charles and his team deserve all the credit.”

Despite the special election victory, Djou isn’t in the clear. National Democrats pulled out of the race earlier in the month after concluding that with Case and Hanabusa splitting the Democratic vote, Djou was likely to emerge as the winner.

And following his victory, Democrats in Hawaii and Washington were quick to note that in November, when Djou must run for a full term and Democrats will be united behind a single nominee after the September primary, the Republican will have a much more difficult time winning—Case and Hanabusa won 57 percent of the vote between them.

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