New members Critz, Djou start off in campaign mode

For Reps. Mark Critz and Charles Djou, the Washington axiom of a “permanent campaign” has never been more apt.

The capital’s newest congressmen have been in office less than a month, but the looming November election has forced them to begin their legislative careers in full campaign mode.

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Critz, a Democrat, won a competitive special election in Pennsylvania on May 18, while Djou, a Republican, took his Hawaii seat a week later after winning a three-way special election on May 22.

Both are facing the same opponents in November they did in May, and political pressures back home are forcing Critz and Djou to put immediate distance between themselves and the national parties that helped elect them. Operatives for their opponents have pledged to scour the limited voting records both lawmakers will compile between now and November, seeking to exploit a paper trail that didn’t exist in their initial campaigns.

In one of their first votes in Congress, on a measure to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military, the two went in opposite directions. Critz voted against repeal, bucking the Democratic Party leadership, while Djou joined just four other Republicans in supporting the measure.

The crossover could become something of a pattern for the next five months.

“It’s possible Djou will have a more liberal voting record than Critz for the duration of this Congress on major issues,” said David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report.

Critz, a former aide to the late congressman he replaced, Rep. John Murtha (D), won his special-election race against Republican businessman Tim Burns by a surprisingly strong margin of 8.5 points. National Republicans aggressively targeted the culturally conservative Western Pennsylvania district, which supported Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president in 2008.

Djou won his Hawaii seat under more complicated circumstances. The childhood home of President Barack Obama, the 1st district had been held for nearly two decades by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D), who resigned to run for governor. Two Democrats — state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and former Rep. Ed Case — faced Djou and split the vote in the winner-take-all race, with Djou winning with just 39 percent of the total.

He will run against Hanabusa in the fall after Case dropped out, leaving Democrats confident they can take back the seat with a unified party. The May vote was evidence “that residents in the district would prefer to be represented by a Democrat,” said Andy Stone, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Now in Congress, Djou and Critz must keep up a full-throttle campaign while adjusting to life in Washington and staffing their Capitol Hill offices.

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“It is exciting, exhilarating and a little exhausting,” Djou told The Hill of the dual responsibilities. He said he hoped to get a brief reprieve after May 22, but instead he spent the Memorial Day recess getting his office up and running before he returns to campaign mode with a D.C. fundraiser Wednesday. “I’m still waiting for that time to rest,” he said.

The transition has been a bit easier for Critz, who was able to retain a large number of Murtha’s staff, his campaign manager, Mike Mikus, said.

“He’s putting the people’s work before the campaign. That said, we’re not missing a beat with the campaign either,” Mikus said.

The special-election victories have given Critz and Djou the inherent advantage of incumbency, even for only five months. And Critz will have access to the perks of membership in the majority party — a status that allowed him to trumpet the passage of an amendment in his name to the defense authorization bill that passed just before Memorial Day.

The majority of special-election winners go on to secure a full term in office, Wasserman said, and a Djou aide noted before his election that Hawaii voters had never ousted a sitting governor, senator or congressman in the state’s history.

Still, there is precedent for voters to change their minds. In 2008, Democratic Rep. Don Cazayoux won a special election in a GOP-leaning Louisiana district only to lose the seat in November to Woody Jenkins, whom he had defeated months earlier. And in 1994, Democratic Rep. Peter Barka lost his Wisconsin seat just a year after winning it in a special election.

This time around, the respective national parties are going after Critz and Djou using virtually the same strategy of trying to undermine their stated pledge to be an independent voice for their districts.

Democrats criticized Djou for holding a fundraiser this week with GOP leaders, while Republicans jumped on Critz’s support for Democratic spending bills last month.

“The fact that Mark Critz will have a voting record will make this race completely different,” Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said.

And after three weeks in Congress and a handful of votes, the verdict on Critz appears to be in — at least as far as the NRCC is concerned.

“So far he’s been a rubber stamp for Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.],” Mazzola said. His votes for Democratic jobs and a science spending bill “amount to a huge broken promise,” he added.

Mikus said Critz has “stood up for Western Pennsylvania” and that he has voted “on the merits” of the bills that have come before him thus far. Republicans, he said, were continuing “a failed strategy of painting him as something that he’s not.”