Monday, August 11, 2014

Race of the Day- Hawai'i Governor

85 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Open
2012 Presidential Result: Blue State (West)

Outlook: Tossup (D)

Aloha. This past Saturday, voters in Hawai'i went to the polls and selected candidates for the general election. That is all voters, except in two precincts on the Big Island, where a hurricane had done damage. They are still voting this week and while their votes may impact a U.S. Senate primary, the contests for Governor were quite lopsided, surprisingly so on the Democrat side, and the matchup there is set.

In following the coverage of the primaries in Hawai'i, it is certainly noticeable just how different politics is there than anywhere else in the Union, including how they cover elections and how candidates and their supporters get together on Election Night. It is the only state where a racial minority group is the majority population and Hawai'i just seems to have a culture all its own. For a political junkie from far away on the Mainland, it was all pretty interesting. The race for Governor is interesting too, as the state's unique political and cultural institutions converged to overwhelmingly knock off a sitting Governor in a primary. Headed into November, there looks like there may be an extremely tight general election, complicated by a third party candidate, in what is perhaps the most Democrat state in the country. The only thing that is certain is that Hawai'i will elect an Asian-American as its Governor for the first time since 1994.

At 76 years old, Democrat Neil Abercrombie has been around the politics of his adopted state for decades. He first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970 as a fairly radical anti-war candidate and has spent almost all of the last 40 years serving in elected office at the city, state, and federal level. A longtime Congressman, Abercrombie took back the Governorship for Democrats, after a rare eight year GOP stint, in 2010 by a hefty margin.

His tenure as Governor has been a rocky one though. In many ways, it can be compared to the tenure of Alaska's Frank Murkowski. Like Abercrombie, Murkowski was a longtime Congressional fixture, representing one of the two non-mainland states. Both men got elected Governor, but found themselves struggling at advanced ages, in very different roles as chiefs executive from what they had been used to. Overwhelmingly vulnerable to general election defeats, both men sought reelection anyway, only to lose first in the primary. The last Governor to lose a primary in America was Murkowski to Sarah Palin in 2006 and now Abercrombie has joined the ranks.

While he cut his ponytail and trimmed his beard several years ago, Abercrombie apparently had a confrontational style, that while useful on Capitol Hill, seemed to run afoul of Hawai'i's cultural and political traditions. Much had been said about how Abercrombie was "disrespectful." However, like Frank Murkowski, it was a U.S. Senate appointment that generated a ton of controversy.

In late 2012, Senator Daniel Inouye died in office. The second longest serving Senator in U.S. history, the Democrat was a legend back home and had served in Congress for as long as Hawai'i had been a state. His dying wish, expressed in a letter to Governor Abercrombie was to appoint his ally, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa to his seat to serve out the remainder of his term. Abercrombie interviewed her, but instead selected his own Lt. Governor, Brian Schatz, to fill the seat. The fact that Abercrombie had gone against the political establishment and Inouye's wishes set shockwaves throughout the state. What was mostly unspoken was the surprise that a white Governor would name a white Senator, which the state had not had since it's very early days.

Hanabusa clearly was angered by the move and would leave her safe Congressional seat to challenge Schatz in the primary this year. While that race is formally undecided, she is trailing in the vote count, and perhaps regrets not running for Governor against Abercrombie, the true source of her grudge instead. She probably would have already won her primary right now. Schatz, who was elected alongside Abercrombie in 2010, may have distanced himself enough from his former boss to narrowly hold on to the job to which he was appointed, but Abercrombie would not be so lucky.

Going into the vote on Saturday, the incumbent certainly looked to be in major trouble against State Senator David Ige, a Japanese-American, backed by much of the state's old-guard Democrats. The margin was shocking though as Abercrombie was wiped out in a political tsunami by over 30 points. This was despite the fact that the Governor outspent his challenger by a 10-1 margin and touted the endorsement of Barack Obama, who of course was born in Hawai'i. Abercrombie (who claims to remember Obama's birth) was described in ads by the sitting President as being "like family." Clearly, that was not enough.

On Saturday evening, Abercrombie accepted the verdict of the voters and graciously showed up to pledge his support to Ige. Frankly, he seemed sort of relieved to have retirement in front of him. His actions to unite the party can only help them moving forward this year. Running alongside Ige, is the current Lt. Governor under Abercrombie. Then State Senate President, Shan Tsutsui had a choice whether or not he wanted to give up that gig to accept the position of Lt. Governor under Abercrombie. He did so and then withstood a primary challenge, and any perceived ties to Abercrombie to win the nomination. After all, Hawai'i is not known for turning incumbents away in primaries.

The two candidates who lost to Abercombie in 2010 are also running for Governor once again and can be forgiven for their disappointment that they will not have another shot at him. Republican James "Duke" Aiona, an Asian-American, had served as Lt. Governor for eight years under the state's reasonably popular Republican Governor. When she was term-limited, Aiona ran to succeed her and was seen as a strong candidate, but Hawai'i was ready to elect a Democrat to the job again and Abercrombie won big. By 2014, the prospects of a rematch looked bright and Aiona is now once again the Republican nominee. GOP voters on Saturday picked conservative pastor and former judge Elwin Ahu over a more establishment figure. I do not know enough about Hawai'i politics to say that Ahu may hurt the ticket, but he is probably not going to help in reaching out to traditional Democrat voters.

Before that general election victory, he defeated former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann to win the nomination. Months ago, Hannemann, who might have had a good chance of winning a Democrat rematch against Abercrombie, entered the 2014 race for Governor as an Independent. While he would definitely be the nation's tallest Governor if elected, Hannemann had been running a distant third in polls, but the support he was taking from the incumbent looked like he might easily cost the Democrats the election, in favor of Aiona.

Now, the incumbent is gone from the race, and the once little known David Ige is the man of the hour for Democrats. Hannemann seems to be staying in the race, but his support may now drop off somewhat. Pre-primary polls also showed the third party candidate taking enough votes to cause Aiona to be ahead of Ige, albeit by a somewhat smaller margin.

Aiona is a formidable candidate, and if Hawaiians want change in the Governor's Office, as they showed on Saturday, maybe they will decide to go all the way and throw out the entire party. They clearly need Hannemann to remain a factor in the race though and to split the vote. That is why I have to consider the race a Tossup right now. Had Abercrombie somehow won re-nomination, a GOP pickup opportunity would be as ripe as a pineapple. Ige just won that primary by so much though, exceeding the polls, in a state where polling is considered the least reliable in the nation. Right now, Aiona very much looks in the three-way game, but that has the potential to change quickly before November. Like the situation for Alaska Republicans in 2006, Hawai'i Democrats in 2014 probably caught a huge break this weekend.

Aiona campaign link:

Gubernatorial races predicted thus far: 4 D (1 Safe, 1 Leans, 2 Tossup) , 6 R (1 Safe, 1 Likely, 4 Leans)
Overall totals predicted thus far: 11 D, 13 R (net Republican gain of 1)


At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Conservative Democrat said...

Appointing Schatz to Inoyue's U.S. Senate seat sealed his doom.

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Independent said...

He should have appointed Hanabusa or at least a term filler.


Post a Comment

<< Home