- Associated Press - Sunday, May 23, 2010

HONOLULU (AP) — A Honolulu city councilman defeated two Democrats to give Republicans a midterm election victory in the U.S. congressional district where President Obama grew up.

Charles Djou’s win Saturday is the latest triumph for the GOP as it looks to take back control of Congress. And it came as a blow to Democrats, who could not rally around a candidate and find a way to win a congressional race that should have been a cakewalk, as a Democrat held the seat for nearly 20 years.

“This is a momentous day. We have sent a message to the United States Congress. We have sent a message to the national Democrats. We have sent a message to the machine,” Mr. Djou said. “The congressional seat is not owned by one political party. This congressional seat is owned by the people.”

But Democrats believe the success in Hawaii will be short-lived. Mr. Djou will serve only through 2010, and another election will be held in November for the next term.

Mr. Djou received 67,610 votes, or 39.4 percent. He was trailed by state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, a Democrat who received 52,802 votes, or 30.8 percent. The other leading Democrat, former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, received 47,391 votes, or 27.6 percent.

Republicans see the victory as a powerful statement about their momentum heading into November. They already sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts — a place that was once thought to be the most hostile of territories for the GOP. Now Republicans can say they won a congressional seat in the former backyard of the president and in a state that gave Mr. Obama 72 percent of the vote two years ago.

“Charles’ victory is evidence his conservative message of lowering the tax burden, job creation and government accountability knows no party lines. It is a message Americans want to hear from candidates across the country,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele.

Democrats are confident they can topple Mr. Djou in November because the vote won’t be split among several candidates, as it was Saturday.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, who is Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, said the fact that the Democratic candidates together received over 50 percent of the vote “demonstrates that Democratic prospects are very good in November.”

“This district is still, as stated, a Democratic district,” Ms. Hanabusa said, pointing to the combined Democratic vote of 58 percent. “We’re energized to start all over again.”

Ms. Hanabusa said she intends to campaign in the September primary for the Democratic nomination to take on Mr. Djou in November. Mr. Case suggested to supporters he would seek the Democratic nomination in September. But when asked directly, he said all he planned to do Monday was “wake up, go body surfing and cut the lawn. We’ll figure out the rest of it later.”

“The people of Hawaii have given us a short-term lease with an option to buy in November,” Mr. Djou said. “This is not the time for us to rest on our laurels. This is the time to redouble our efforts to bring out change, to do good, to restore our nation to prosperity.”

The party was on at the Republican Party headquarters in Honolulu. A band played Hawaiian music, and hundreds of supporters hugged Mr. Djou, piling on a stack of floral leis around his neck. A whiteboard inside the office read, “Just Djou it!”

Mr. Djou, 39, enjoyed solid support from state and national Republicans and ran a disciplined campaign focused on taxes and government spending at a time when Hawaii’s tourism-driven economy remains troubled, with the state facing a $1 billion deficit, large cuts to state programs and workers, and an unemployment rate that nearly has doubled in the past three years. In contrast, Democrats bickered over whether Mr. Case or Ms. Hanabusa was the stronger candidate, and the situation got so bad that Mr. Obama and national party leaders weren’t able to endorse one contender. Instead, they aired television ads and made automated telephone calls that asked voters to chose “a Democrat.”

Mr. Djou will replace Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who resigned after 10 terms to run for governor.

Republican Gov. Linda Lingle said Mr. Djou’s victory indicated that voters “are looking for people who aren’t tied to special interests.”

At one point, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee appeared ready to throw its support to Mr. Case. That was until Hawaii’s influential senior senator, Democrat Daniel Inouye, made it clear Ms. Hanabusa was his choice. He has scorned Mr. Case since the then-congressman ran against Hawaii’s other senator, Democrat Daniel Akaka, in the 2006 primary.

In contrast, Mr. Djou enjoyed solid support from local and national Republicans, who funneled money to his campaign but took a much lower profile than their Democratic counterparts.

He burnished his conservative bona fides during the campaign, making appearances at Hawaii’s “tea party” protest and on Fox News Channel for an interview with host Sean Hannity.

His message was clear: Taxes are too high, the federal government has grown too large, and wasteful government spending hinders economic prosperity.

Mr. Djou, the son of immigrants from China and Thailand, joined the Army Reserve after Sept. 11 and obtained the rank of captain. He has an Ivy League education and a law degree, served in the state Legislature and worked as a law school professor.

Mr. Djou’s next political challenge will be in the November general election, when he will face only one Democratic nominee. That candidate will be chosen in the September primary election.

Democrats have expressed certainty that Mr. Djou will not be able to repeat in November when he will face a single Democratic candidate in the left-leaning district.

The likely candidates for the party will again be Ms. Hanabusa and Mr. Case. Ms. Hanabusa is a fourth-generation American of Japanese ancestry whose grandparents worked on a plantation and were interned by the U.S. government during World War II. Mr. Case, 57, is the oldest of six children and the cousin of AOL co-founder Steve Case.

Mr. Djou will be the first Republican to represent Hawaii in Congress since Rep. Pat Saiki left office in 1991.

The election was conducted entirely by mail. Eleven other candidates were on the ballot, but none of them had a serious chance of contending.

Final results showed that 54 percent, or 171,417, of the 317,337 ballots that were sent to voters were returned. It was a strong turnout compared with the 2002 special election to fill a vacancy in the 2nd Congressional District, when only 13 percent cast their votes.

Associated Press writer Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.