Dems' special-election scramble

April 6, 2010

The prospect of losing two House seats in back-to-back special elections next month has sparked a vigorous, behind-the-scenes Democratic effort, designed to avoid an outcome that could lead to panic among the rank and file and stall the momentum generated by the recent passage of landmark health care legislation.

The trajectories of the two elections, which will take place in Pennsylvania and Hawaii over a span of four days next month, have raised alarm bells among top party officials who fear that a pair of defeats in the Democratic-held seats could amount to a Massachusetts Senate sequel, overshadowing President Barack Obama’s health care reform plan and reinforcing a narrative that the Democratic Party is on track for severe losses in November.

According to sources familiar with the effort, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already assembled teams of top party operatives — including veteran pollster John Anzalone and longtime ad man Saul Shorr to work on the Pennsylvania campaign, and media strategist David Dixon, who signed on to work the Hawaii race — to oversee what are expected to be large and expensive independent expenditure operations.

More important, two Democratic sources told POLITICO that the DCCC is working feverishly to prevent a very real scenario in which the two top Democrats split the party vote and enable Republican Charles Djou to capture the heavily Democratic seat in Hawaii’s May 22 all-party special election.

“Djou has a real chance of winning because it only takes a plurality of the votes,” said Kam Kuwata, a longtime Democratic strategist and a veteran of Hawaii campaigns. “You will have all the talking heads on Fox News saying, ‘A blow to President Obama in his home state,’ and you’ll have [House Minority Leader] John Boehner saying, ‘The people have spoken again.’”

Determined to avert that result, the two sources said the DCCC is providing under-the-radar organizational support to former Rep. Ed Case against Democratic state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, including assistance from DCCC Western Regional Political Director Adam Sullivan.

Those efforts have coincided with the circulation of opposition research within Washington advancing the notion that Hanabusa is a longtime insider who received significant legislative pay raises at a time when the state has suffered through economic hard times — an emerging storyline that led Hanabusa to pull down her first campaign ad touting a vote to cut state legislative salaries and concede that the spot was misleading.

Several formidable obstacles still confront Democrats, however. The low-profile efforts on Case’s behalf has set up a potential showdown with Hawaii’s two senators, Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, and a state Democratic establishment that harbors deep resentment toward Case for waging a 2006 primary bid against Akaka.

In recent weeks, the DCCC reached out to Inouye and Akaka, both of whom have endorsed Hanabusa, to inform them the committee is considering lining up behind Case, according to two sources with knowledge of the conversations.

“We have to figure out how we convince them that it’s not in our interest to take a loss,” said a top Democratic official who is not involved in the DCCC’s efforts.

Practically speaking, though, the key to delivering a win for Case may have less to do with Akaka and Inouye than with the Hawaii’s most powerful union — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is also backing Hanabusa.

Senior Democratic officials have met with AFSCME chief Gerald McEntee to urge him to drop the union’s opposition to Case, POLITICO has learned. If AFSCME can be convinced Case is the more electable of the two Democrats, party strategists believe they can retain the seat.

AFSCME isn’t the only Democratic-oriented group that party officials have reached out to in hopes of breaking the special election logjam — EMILY’s List, another Hanabusa supporter, has also been informed that that the DCCC is considering throwing its support to Case.

The DCCC on Monday declined to discuss its work in the Hawaii district that encompasses Obama’s birthplace of Honolulu.

“The DCCC doesn’t comment on the internal workings of the committee. What we are focused on is making sure Hawaii voters know about Charles Djou’s record of supporting corporate special interests over Hawaii’s families,” said Jennifer Crider, a DCCC spokeswoman.

While the Hawaii problem is largely rooted in the quirky dynamics of the special-election process to replace former Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie, the current political environment is what’s fueling Democratic fears in southwestern Pennsylvania .

The contest to replace the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha is still taking shape, but Democrats in Pennsylvania and Washington are expressing worries that the party nominee, former Murtha District Director Mark Critz, is uniquely vulnerable to being painted as a political insider at time when that is no asset.

“Locally, there’s a lot of anger, people know things aren’t right. And it taps into the general anxiety out there that things are on the wrong track,” Barbara Hafer, Critz’s onetime primary opponent and a former state treasurer, told POLITICO. “That could lead into a throw-the-bums out attitude.”

One Democratic operative following the race, noting that public polling shows Critz with a narrow lead over Republican businessman Tim Burns in a district with a significant Democratic voter registration advantage, was blunter in his assessment: “It’s easy to make an argument that he’s part of the problem. He was a Hill staffer; he asked for questionable earmarks. There’s a lot to beat him up on.”

Equally worrisome is the realization that the Pennsylvania seat, while ostensibly Democratic, is not favorably inclined toward the national Democratic Party — it has remained in the party’s hands during the past three decades thanks to the force of Murtha’s personality and the federal largesse he delivered.

The economically struggling district is the only one in the nation that voted for Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election and then for Sen. John McCain in 2008.

“It’s a tough district. The fact that Murtha got elected so many times covered up the fact that this is a tough seat,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with the race. “Just look at the district on a map: There’s a lot of ‘Pennsyltucky’ action there.”

Recognizing the threat, administration officials will be dispatching Vice President Joe Biden to stump for Critz later this month, POLITICO has learned.

“I think there’s nervousness. The dynamics of the individual races are not great for different reasons,” said a senior Democratic strategist who has been involved in House races. “Coming off the health care passage and with the general concern for November, they are worried that the races are taking on an elevated importance and that they don’t deserve to be.”

“Hawaii is not a microcosm of America, and I don’t think PA-12 is either,” added another senior Democratic strategist. “But they will be viewed as wins or losses on health care and this administration, whether they are or they aren’t.”

Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.

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