HONOLULU — In left-leaning Hawaii, the home state of President Barack Obama, Democrats are in danger of losing a seat in the U.S. House.
Republican Charles Djou has been working to convince voters it would be wise to send a Republican to Washington so the state has a voice in the majority party, and his message is striking a chord among some voters who are hungry for change.
The latest poll showed Djou tied with Democratic state Sen. Mark Takai one week before Election Day, with each candidate getting 47 percent of likely voters.
"Hawaii is a very heavily Democratic state, and it is very difficult to challenge the establishment and go up against the old boy network," Djou said. "I think the conventional wisdom would be to expect at this point that I would be crushed, that I would be a million miles behind with no chance."
But polls tell a different story. And conventions changed with the death of veteran Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye in 2012, which set into motion a chain of events that left the seat in Hawaii's 1st Congressional District up for grabs.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Sen. Brian Schatz to finish Inouye's term, upsetting Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, whom Inouye anointed from his death bed to succeed him. Hanabusa challenged Schatz for the Senate seat in the primary but lost.
Democratic state Rep. Mark Takai emerged from the primary out of a crowd of hopefuls. He knew it would be a tough fight against Djou, who held the seat for seven months in 2010 and 2011, but Takai said he didn't expect to be tied with the Republican candidate at this point.
"Charles Djou had an effective message at the beginning, messaging that he's a moderate and a centrist," Takai said. "I thought it was important that people understand his record and my record, because clearly he's not a centrist."
The fight between the parties attracted the attention of mainland super PACs, which saw an opportunity for Republicans to pick up a seat in a volatile election year.
American Action Network, a group that tweeted that it's gearing up to bring more conservatives to Congress this November, poured nearly $300,000 into ads portraying Takai as a Democrat who has voted to raise taxes, further raising Hawaii's high cost of living.
The Democratic Party of Hawaii in its ad said Djou sided with Tea Party Republicans when he served in Congress, adding that he voted to cut education funding in Hawaii.
Both candidates dispute the validity of the super PAC ads, and say the influx of money from outside Hawaii is bad for voters. Attorneys from Takai's campaign sent a letter to television executives disputing the Republican ads and asking for them to be taken down.
In recent years, Hawaii voters sent more Democrats to the state Legislature and Congress than any other state, said Dante Carpenter, former chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
"That's sort of the pinnacle of success in a sense," Carpenter said. "So is there only one way to go from there, and is that downhill? Or can you maintain? I guess that's the question."
Djou, an Army veteran who served on the Honolulu City Council, previously held the congressional seat after he won a three-way special election. But he lost the seat to Hanabusa in 2010, and she defeated him again in 2012.
Takai, a long-time state representative and member of the Hawaii National Guard, is reminding voters what Democrats have done for the state. Takai's advertisements in the final days of his campaign are playing up his party roots, with one TV spot featuring a photo of Obama.
He said Djou, on the other hand, is running away from his party.
"If you look at any of his logos, or his campaign, it never says he's a Republican," Takai said. "Look at my signs. I'm a very proud Democrat ... Everything we talk about in terms of major social change was led by Democrats."
Djou and other Republicans are hoping that voters in Hawaii will decide a one-party congressional delegation isn't good for the state.
"I think they're finally going to wake up to the fact that we should have competition. We should have two-party actions," said Pat Saiki, chairwoman of Hawaii's Republican party. "I'm hopeful that this election will show that people across the nation are walking up, and people in Hawaii will follow."
Follow Cathy Bussewitz at https://twitter.com/cbussewitz.