Saturday, May 29, 2010

Republicans win Obama's hometown district

You might have heard about this. Might. Last Saturday there was a special election in Hawaii's first congressional district. Democratic Representative Neil Abercrombe stepped down a few months ago to run for governor in that state, which triggered a special election for the seat. In Hawaii, special elections have a come-one-come-all format—there are no primaries. As a result, there were two Democratic candidates, Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa, running against one Republican. The national Democratic Party tried to get one of the Democrats to agree to drop out, but neither budged. As a result, the vote was split three ways, and Republican Charles Djou won the seat.

This is kind of remarkable. Djou became the first Republican to win a special House election under the Obama administration. Furthermore, he did it in a very heavily Democratic district which also happens to be where President Obama was born. Over the past week, what has been said about this? Not much at all.

You'd think they'd be parading a victory like this around as if it were the head of John the Baptist. The Democrats sure did in New York's 23rd district, which hadn't gone for a Democrat since before the Civil War. They also did so in Pennsylvania's 12th district, which is the only district in the country that voted for John Kerry in 2004 but for John McCain in 2008, which means it's apparently trending more conservative. Why aren't the Republicans gloating here? This is a golden opportunity!

Well, there are reasons why this hasn't been trumpeted by Michael Steele and the Republican Party. It's like this:

1. Charles Djou isn't very conservative at all, as evinced by the recent vote on the repeal of the Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell policy, where he became one of the five House Republicans to vote in favor of the repeal.

2. He's not affiliated with the Tea Party and the Tea Party had nothing to do with his victory. With the Republican Party scrambling to curry favor with the Tea Party, you can be sure they'll do what they can to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any Tea Party victory, to build their Tea Party cred. This was no such victory.

3. This seat is up again in November, anyway. This time, however, there's going to be a Democratic primary. Case and Hanabusa are all but certain to duke it out again in that primary, and we can count on one of them winning. With one Democratic opponent, Djou is most likely not going to be returned to Congress.

4. This district contains President Obama's birthplace. The Republican Party might enjoy drawing attention to that fact if they weren't already counting on hordes of crazies who believe that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya. If the Republican Party were to try to trumpet this aspect of their victory, that would deflate the Birthers who mean so much to the Republican base.

What's odd is that this Republican victory is probably a better bellwether than the other special election losses that the Republicans have seen since 2007. A guy like Djou is what they need to win in districts where they're somewhat competitive, but since they're also trying to maintain a juggling act with the Birthers and the Tea Party (and all the overlap those groups see,) the Republicans are stuck lurching toward the political right due to the radicals who have increasingly loud voices in their party. All things being equal, 2010 should be a great year for the Republicans—but all things are not equal. There's a good chance we'll see Republican gains in the House, but if we do, they'll be much smaller than they ought to be, considering that 1) the Democrats have just had two unusually good Congressional election cycles and 2) the first midterm elections of a president's term usually favor the party that doesn't control the White House.

This is the best opportunity the Republicans have had in years, and they probably won't have another good year until at least 2014. Even the Senate elections don't bode well for them. While the Republicans are all but assured to pick up the Senate seats in Delaware and North Dakota, they need to at least run to the center if they want to hold on to states like New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida and Missouri—and they're not running to the center in those places. That's what the Republican Party needs to do, and they're just not doing it. They're listening to the Tea Party, and doing so at their own peril.

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