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Mainland cash floods isles with election ads

Tight local races prompt national groups to spend a record $3 million

By Derrick DePledge and B.J. Reyes

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:32 a.m. HST, Oct 31, 2010


Unprecedented investment by mainland political interests in Hawaii this year resulted partly from the increase of money in politics and the symbolic value of President Barack Obama's former home state, but the main reason for the attention is simple: competition.

Hawaii has not often had such competitive campaigns for governor and Congress in the same election year, a sweetener that has prompted a record $3 million onslaught of advertising by national Democrats and Republicans on top of the heavy spending by local candidates, political parties and labor unions.

Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, the Democratic candidate for governor, has held an edge over Republican Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona in public opinion polls. Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Djou and Democratic state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa have been locked in a close race for urban Honolulu's 1st Congressional District.

"For a very long time, Republicans did not view it as a place where we could compete, and Democrats did not view it as a place that they had to defend," Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said in a telephone interview. "With what has gone on in the last few years, both committees have had to rethink their strategies."

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said Democrats are eager to convert a state that has had a Republican governor for eight years. "We look to see where our investment can generate the best return," he said in a telephone interview. "That means we're looking for states where we have strong candidates, where we think it's winnable, and Hawaii absolutely reflects that for us."

The RGA has spent more than $1 million in Hawaii since August on behalf of Aiona. The DGA, in a late response, dropped $224,000 in the islands this month to assail Aiona. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent nearly $1.3 million on behalf of Hanabusa and the Democrats since April. The National Republican Congressional Committee has invested $342,000 and allies such as American Crossroads have kicked in $180,000 this month to help Djou.

The mainland money is considered electioneering communications or independent expenditures that are not coordinated with any of the campaigns.

"If this weren't a close race, one side of the national money would have dropped out or both sides might've dropped out," said Neal Milner, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

There are other factors, in addition to competition, that have had an influence. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the RGA, is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and has proven fundraising ability. Barbour, a potential Republican presidential contender in 2012, has helped the RGA collect $59 million this year, including $31 million in the third quarter alone.

If the RGA were not as flush, Aiona may have had a tougher time getting on the national radar. Aiona shared internal polling data with the RGA in June and September to show he was competitive. It also helped that Gov. Linda Lingle was active in the RGA and that Republicans have held Washington Place for two terms in a blue state that also happens to be where Obama was born.

"We felt that irrespective of Democrats having a strong hold on virtually every office in the state Legislature and at the federal level, that we could make this a competitive race," Ayres said. "But we knew it would take an investment, which is why we began early."

The DGA has raised $27 million this year -- $10 million in the third quarter. Democrats have focused on holding governor's seats in important swing states such as Ohio and potential prize pickups in California and Florida. Abercrombie held a substantial lead over Aiona in most polls until this month, when the DGA chipped in with ads.

"We don't believe in walking into the end zone. We want to run into the end zone and help push him over the top," Markell said.

Markell said that despite the RGA's national fundraising success -- "Haley Barbour has got an amazing Rolodex" -- the races are going to be decided by candidates in individual states. "The closer we get to the election, we think the voters are understanding that this is not a referendum on either the president or on the party, but it is a choice between candidates," he said.

Abercrombie's decision to resign from the U.S. House early, triggering a special election in May to fill out the remainder of his term, put Hawaii on the map nationally for Congress in a way it might not have if Abercrombie had completed his term and the election to replace him played out in the September primary and November general election.

Both political parties were searching for momentum last spring, so the special election in Obama's former home congressional district received national attention.

The DCCC launched ads in Hawaii in April targeting Djou. But local Democrats failed to rally behind a single candidate -- Hanabusa or former congressman Ed Case -- and the DCCC pulled out in early May after spending $313,000.

Many local Democrats criticized the involvement of the DCCC, which did not make an endorsement but privately preferred Case as the more electable Democrat. U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, the state's leading Democrat, and other top local Democrats supported Hanabusa.

The split allowed Djou to win the winner-take-all special election with 39 percent of the vote. Hanabusa finished second and Case third.

Case's decision a week later to drop out of the ensuing primary race left Democrats confident of flipping the seat back to blue in November, and with control of the U.S. House at stake, the DCCC returned, spending $959,000 in the islands since May.

"Since Charles Djou stridently refuses to do it, the DCCC is working to remind the people of Hawaii about Djou's record of voting against their interests by opposing Wall Street reform and emergency unemployment benefits while supporting tax breaks for job outsourcers and privatizing Social Security," said Andy Stone, the DCCC's western regional spokesman.

The NRCC stayed out of Hawaii during the special election, but with polls in the last month showing Djou and Hanabusa in a statistical tie, the group stepped up with $342,000 in ads.

"We're happy to support Charles because he actually wants to turn the economy around, unlike Colleen Hanabusa, who wants to advance job-killing policies that will hurt Hawaii's economy," said Joanna Burgos, an NRCC spokeswoman.

Republicans also delight in the fact that Democrats have had to spend heavily in a district that has been blue for two decades.

"When Washington Democrats are forced to spend over $1 million on radio, TV, mail and online ads in this overwhelmingly Democratic seat, it just goes to show how unpopular their reckless tax-and-spend agenda is with middle-class families and small businesses," Burgos said.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts on independent political advertising, striking down federal restrictions on ads that mention candidates in the weeks before elections.

Interest groups, now free to spend, have helped supplement the political parties in targeted races.

American Crossroads, a political group backed by GOP strategist Karl Rove, and its affiliates have raised more than $56 million nationally to help Republicans. Crossroads jumped into the Hawaii congressional race this month with $180,000 for ads against Hanabusa.

The mainland money has been layered over the significant fundraising by the candidates and their allies.

Abercrombie has raised more than $3.7 million. Aiona has collected more than $3.1 million. Neither will break Lingle's $6 million fundraising record, but Lingle did not have to raise money during a recession or a full election cycle under a state campaign-finance law that restricts donations from the mainland and from state and county contractors.

Djou and Hanabusa have both brought in more than $2 million.

The Democratic Party of Hawaii has raised $365,704 for the election cycle. The state GOP has collected $637,056.

A coalition of labor unions, meanwhile, has sponsored more than $200,000 worth of ads on behalf of Abercrombie this month. The combination of DGA and union ad spending has partially blunted the RGA's larger investment for Aiona.

Lingle has a positive take on the mainland spending in Hawaii. "What that says is it really makes a difference who gets elected," the governor said recently. "I think having all this interest and funding for the campaign is really a reflection of how important the election is and the fact that it really does make a difference."

John Hart, a communications professor at Hawaii Pacific University, calls the amount of money in politics in general "appalling" and questions what donors expect from politicians in return. But he thinks part of the national money is because of Obama.

"Politics is local," he said. "But because there is an opportunity for the Republican Party to score points in the president's back yard, and they have competitive races, it's worth it for them to pour the money in. It would be great PR -- it would be the icing on the cake -- if they get the Senate or the House, to point to what they've done in Hawaii.

"The symbolism can't be missed there."






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