Democratic Incumbents In Trouble In Hawaii Primary

Trouble in paradise for two of Hawaii's top Democrats?

Waikiki Beach Two of Hawaii’s top ranking Democratic politicians are facing a battle today in the Aloha State’s Democratic Primaries:

HONOLULU — For all the talk of tea-party threats to Republican incumbents, it’s solidly-Democratic Hawaii — where the sitting governor and the man he appointed to a Senate seat could be defeated on Saturday — that could see the most significant political upheaval of 2014.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Sen. Brian Schatz are fighting to preserve their political careers against robust challenges from within their own party. A loss by either would be the only for an incumbent governor or senator so far this year.

Islanders will head to the polls on Saturday, a relatively calm day sandwiched between two hurricanes — the first of which, Iselle, soaked the islands Thursday night and Friday, threatening to upend candidates’ electoral calculus.

Iselle’s impacts fell short of the nightmare projections and will only delay primary voting in two polling places on the island of Hawaii, known here as the Big Island — affecting roughly 8,000 voters, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Everywhere else, the vote will go on.

The first tropical storm to hit Hawaii in 22 years had a noticeable impact on life here Friday, campaign activity included. Though signs for candidates for governor and Senate dot highway turnoffs and the occasional house, as what amounted to just a small sprinkle over the capital city late Friday afternoon there was just one older man with an Abercrombie sign standing on the corner of what would, without the storms, normally be a busier intersection by Frank C. Judd Park in Waikiki.

But by Friday afternoon, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell had declared an “all clear.”

“We dodged a bullet,” Caldwell said at a news conference. “We’re confident the worst is over.”

Though the official warnings have been canceled, the islands remain on alert. There were reports of power outages and flooding on the Big Island, which caught the brunt of Iselle. And uncertainty still loomed over the second storm, Julio, which was 495 miles east of Hilo early Saturday morning but is expected to pass north of the state Sunday and Monday.

Abercrombie — who suspended campaign activities Thursday night and Friday to prepare the state for Iselle — appears to be particularly vulnerable in Saturday’s primary. He’s trailing by double digits in a string of recent polls against state Sen. David Ige, who’s little-known outside his suburban-Honolulu district. The winner will likely face Duke Aiona, the former lieutenant governor who lost handily to Abercrombie four years ago, and independent Mufi Hannemann, the former Democratic mayor of Honolulu.

Schatz, appointed to the Senate by Abercrombie in 2012 on the death of then-Sen. Daniel Inouye, is up against Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who was Inouye’s choice to succeed him. Schatz’s lead has ebbed and flowed in competing surveys — a staple of politics in the frustratingly difficult-to-poll state.

Political observers and pollsters see a pair of races in which the candidates differ little on policy but hail from different factions of the Democratic Party. Ige and Hanabusa represent a wing of the party with ties to Inouye, a political patriarch in Hawaii. They’ll rely heavily on turnout from Americans of Japanese ancestry, who can be a decisive demographic when they turn out in force.

“Hanabusa does have one big advantage. Support among her supporters is deeper,” said Colin Moore, a University of Hawaii political scientist. “Those are people who are going to show up even in a hurricane.”

Abercrombie, 76, and Schatz, 41, represent a younger, slightly more progressive wing of the party and poll better among white voters. Abercrombie’s choice of Schatz for the Senate seat represented his stamp on the future of the state party. But he’s faced some backlash over defying Inouye’s wishes — particularly when he suggested, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, that the death-bed letter Inouye sent Abercrombie pushing Hanabusa for the seat was only “ostensibly” from the senator and was “far from a dying wish.”

Abercrombie does have the support of another famous Hawaiian: President Barack Obama, an old family friend who recorded a radio ad on the governor’s behalf. Yet Abercrombie’s high-profile support — not to mention his cash advantage and name ID — so far hasn’t translated into a lead in the latest polls.

Ige credits his lead to an intense face-to-face campaign with voters. “I’m convinced if I can speak to a voter in person that they will leave the meting believing that I’m the best choice for governor,” he said in a phone interview.

But Ige’s advantage is also driven by Abercrombie’s poor image among voters. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser survey — which showed Ige with an 18-point lead, larger than other polls — pegged Abercrombie with an upside-down, 38-percent favorable rating, versus 58 percent unfavorable.

“It really is all about Abercrombie,” said Matthew Fitch, who conducts a rival poll for the website Civil Beat. “Abercrombie’s problems are strictly him.”

This being Hawaii, polling has been limited but there is at least some indication that both Schatz and Abercrombie could be in serious trouble. In the Senate race, the most recent poll from the Hawaii News has Congresswoman Hanabusa with an eight point lead over Senator Scharz, and the TPM PollTracker’s poll average (RealClearPolitics hasn’t kept their Hawaii Senate polling as up-to-date as TPM) shows her with nearly a three point lead over the Senator with the trend clearly moving in her direction. In the Governor’s race, the most recent poll has Ige with a ten point lead over Abercrombie which seems consistent with other recent polling. If these numbers are accurate, then obviously both Schatz and Abercrombie could end up losing by the time the votes are counted later today. Of course, Abercrombie may benefit from the recent hurricane threat in much the same way that Chris Christie did in the wake of Hurricane Sandy given that it has given him the opportunity to, well, do his job as Governor.

As noted above, to some extent, the fates of Abercrombie and Schatz seem to be tied together. There were reports of much consternation inside Hawaii Democratic circles when Abercrombie decided to appoint his Lt. Governor to replace Senator Inoyue rather than the late Senator’s apparent choice of Congresswoman Hanabusa. At the very least, it has meant that pretty much all of Inoyue’s supporters, as well as his widow and the rest of this family, quickly jumped on Hanabusa’s bandwagon when she announced that she would be running against Senator Schatz for the nomination. From what I have gathered from the coverage of the race that I’ve been able to follow, that has given the entire race something of a battle between the “old guard” of Hawaiian politics, as represented by Inoyue, and the newer forces backing Abercrombie and others. In the end, today’s elections may end up being a test of just how much of a legacy the late Senator still has. In any case, this being Hawaii whomever manages to win the nominations will in all likelihood win the General Election in November. The Governor’s race could end up being competitive given the fact that the GOP has managed to win that seat in the past, but the Senate race is safely Democratic and likely to stay that way no matter which candidate wins today.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. JKB says:

    Really, no one is going to comment this being rich, old, white Liberals being challenged by racially diverse minority candidates for control of the Democratic party in Hawaii?

  2. That’s certainly part of it, I think.

    Incidentally, if Hanabusa wins she would join Maize Hirono as the second woman representing Hawaii in the Senate (and the second all-female Senate delegation after California) and the second Buddhist member of the Senate.

  3. Grewgills says:

    Hawaii politics, particularly on the outer islands, has been more dominated by Japanese politicians than by ‘rich old white liberals’. The establishment here isn’t what you think it is.