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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Some familiar messages in special election

"The voters have spoken," everyone always says after an election. The trick is figuring out what they said.

This time there are multiple messages to read from the voter tallies of the special election in the First Congressional District.

The bottom line result is unambiguous. Honolulu has sent, for the first time since the 1980s, a Republican to Congress.

Regardless of the fact that Charles Djou won less than a resounding, majority-vote mandate, his showing was strong enough and in enough precincts to signal that some voters were ready for a change. He ran a credible campaign that generally stuck to a positive message calling for fiscal responsibility in the federal government. He has concluded, with good reason, that this message resonated. Honolulu has shifted away from its dyed-in-the-wool Democratic roots toward more conservative, or at least more pragmatic, political accommodations.

But a note of caution for anyone tempted to divine more from the vote than what's there. This result is not a win for the tea party. It does not signal a resurgence of the Republican Party in Hawai'i, or a sudden abandonment of the Democratic agenda. Djou was nearly 40,000 votes behind the combined total run up by the two Democrats.

Although Djou will be campaigning in the coming regular elections as the incumbent, he's not going to have much time to rack up a record and will have to be careful about any messages he sends home. He promised to put Hawai'i before party loyalty, and the voters want to see that independence.

For Democrats, there are subtexts, too. Ed Case, who has told some that he will run in the primary, should note that Colleen Hanabusa probably owes her margin of victory to a solid grassroots organization. For all that Hawai'i politics may be changing, that's a constant, and it's something he would have to work to match or overcome.

And Hanabusa, who must feel vindicated about her decision to stay in the race, needs to be careful not to presume too much about how a regular primary and general election will play out. Someone who voted for a Democrat this time may still be in play, and both Democrats will have to work to keep them.

All of the candidates would be smart to listen to voters beyond their base. In Hawai'i and in other states in the last several weeks, the independent voters have found their voice, and politicians ignore them at their own peril.