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Hawaii's Republicans poised to take House seat long held by Democrats -- fluke or sign of things to come?

May 13, 2010 |  8:01 am

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Hawaii has long been known as a Democratic stronghold. Sure, Republican Linda Lingle served two terms as governor, to fairly good reviews. In 2006, she was reelected to a third term with 62% of the vote. Still, for most of the five decades since statehood, Hawaii's politics have been dominated by Democrats.

But on May 22, when voters in Hawaii's 1st District cast ballots in a special election for a House seat, a Republican is likely to win. The reason? A grudge against one of the Democratic candidates by the state's political titan -- Democrat Daniel Inouye, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

The story started back in 2006, when Ed Case, then a member of Hawaii's four-member delegation to Congress, told Inouye he would not challenge the state's junior senator, Dan Akaka, the first U.S. senator of Native Hawaiian ancestry (Inouye was the first Japanese American in the House and then in the Senate). Case promised Inouye and the other members of the delegation that he would not. Then he did.

The 85-year-old Inouye, the third-longest-serving senator in U.S. history, recounted the incident recently to politico.com.

I was chairman of the delegation and held a meeting once. I said, "There’s a rumor circulating that you, Ed Case, are running against Dan Akaka." He said, "Oh no, I wish him well." We were all there. All four of us with our staffs. Then we find out that while he said "Oh no," he had it all printed.

So this year, when Democrat Neil Abercrombie resigned from Congress to run for governor, Inouye fiercely opposed Case's campaign to fill the vacancy, instead backing state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa.

The result: Case and Hanabusa are splitting the Democratic vote, and Republicans are on the cusp of electing their candidate -- Honolulu City Councilman Ed Djou -- in the special, winner-take-all election.

Democrats had sought intervention from the White House -- hoping Hawaii native President Obama might challenge Inouye by intervening to save Case, thought nationally to be the strongest candidate to win in the general election in November.

But Obama stayed out of it, urging Hawaiians instead to vote for a Democrat. Smart cookie. After all, he who controls the purse strings at the Appropriations Committee influences a lot of the president's agenda.

So Djou has been talking as if he's in. If so, it's hard to say whether this special election portends a change nationally. True, once in office, Djou will be an incumbent, usually harder to oust, handing Republicans one more advantage in their effort to regain control of the House.

But this year? Anything's possible.

-- Johanna Neuman

twitter.com/latimestot

twitter.com/johannaneuman

Photo: Sen. Daniel Inouye. Credit: John Shinkle / Politico

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