Hawaii’s Governor Loses Democratic Primary, Senate Primary Too Close To Call

As I noted yesterday, both of the Democratic incumbents that faced primaries yesterday in Hawaii were at risk of losing. As things stand this morning, Governor Neil Abercrombie has lost his primary for a second term, and Senator Brian Schatz is locked in a tight battle with Congresswoman Colleen Hinabusa that could end up in a recount:

HONOLULU — After nearly four decades in elected office in Hawaii, Gov. Neil Abercrombie was dealt a stunning defeat in his bid for re-election over the weekend, becoming the first incumbent governor in the state’s history to lose in his party’s primary.

Mr. Abercrombie, a Democrat, was defeated Saturday by David Ige, who began the campaign as a little-known state senator but capitalized on the governor’s sinking popularity to win the nomination.

The race will almost certainly mark the end of Mr. Abercrombie’s long political career. At age 76, he collected only about 31 percent of the vote, compared with 66 percent for Mr. Ige.

“Every waking breath that I’ve taken, every thought that I’ve had before I slept, was for Hawaii,” Mr. Abercrombie said of his nearly 40 years in public office. “Whatever faults I had, one of them has never been a failure to give all that I can every day.”

“Hawaii is everything to me,” he added, pledging to support Mr. Ige in the general election.

Mr. Ige hardly seemed able to believe how easily he ultimately earned the nomination, after overcoming enormous disadvantages in fund-raising and name recognition. Through July 25, Mr. Abercrombie had spent nearly $5 million trying to secure re-election; Mr. Ige spent less than $500,000, according to the Hawaii campaign spending commission.

But the money did not matter. As the election became a referendum on an unpopular governor, voters who knew little about Mr. Ige were willing to support him.

“When we started this 13 months ago, I had people tell me I was crazy,” he said. “No one thought we would be anywhere close to where we are today.”

Quite frankly, I think the way The New York Times characterizes Abercrombie’s defeat as “stunning,” or as the put in their headline “surprising” is a bit disingenuous. The signs that the Governor was in trouble had been quite apparently for quite some time, and the polling in the race, while limited and suffering from some of the same problems that polling generally does in the Aloha State, seemed to indicate clearly that Ige was surging and that Abercrombie was in serious trouble. It is, no doubt,  a big deal given the fact that Abercrombie has been a fixture in Hawaiian politics for the past 40 years and that he had strong ties to President Obama and his family. However, it occurs to me that it didn’t require one to pay much attention to the race to conclude that the Governor was in trouble.

The Honoluu Star-Advertiser has more coverage of Abercrombie’s loss:

In a historic upset, state Sen. David Ige, who was unknown to many voters six months ago, ousted Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Saturday in the Demo-cratic primary.

Ige, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, drubbed Abercrombie 67 percent to 32 percent, an unprecedented repudiation of an incumbent governor in Hawaii.

Abercrombie is the first governor since William Quinn, a Republican, to lose re-election in Hawaii since 1962 and the only governor to fall in a primary.

Ige will face Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, a Republican, and former Hono-lulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, of the Hawaii Independent Party, in the November general election.

“When we started this 13 months ago, I probably had more people tell me that I was crazy than really believing that this night could happen,” Ige told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Moiliili, describing the vote as “heartwarming for me.”

Abercrombie, who outspent Ige 10-to-1 and was endorsed by Hawaii-born President Barack Obama and Hono-lulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, had trailed in public opinion polls before the primary and had poor job approval ratings for the past three years. But the governor’s defeat is startling given the state’s economic rebound during his four-year term and recent policy victories on the minimum wage, land conservation at Turtle Bay Resort and marriage equality.

The governor, speaking of his four-decade political career, said that “every waking breath that I’ve taken, every thought that I had before I slept, was for Hawaii and was for you and for all the brothers and sisters over these past 40 years that have given me the

privilege and the honor to serve Hawaii’s people.

“Faith and trust has been placed in me. And I’ve tried to honor that faith and trust to the very best of my ability. Whatever shortcomings I have, whatever faults that I have, I can guarantee you one of them has never been a failure to give all I can every day that I can for Hawaii.”

After Abercrombie conceded outside of his campaign headquarters in Kakaako, the governor joined Ige on stage in Moiliili and pledged to help his rival win in November. “You have made a decision tonight, the Democratic Party has made a decision tonight,” he said. “The governor’s office is the office of the people of Hawaii, and I’m going to do everything I can to see that David Ige occupies that office for all of the people of Hawaii.”

Dante Carpenter, former chairman of the Demo-cratic Party of Hawaii and a longtime political ally of the governor, said he was disappointed by the size of the loss. He said the negative perception of the governor over the past few years “appears to have come home to roost. Notwithstanding the fact that, as far as I’m concerned, the governor did what he had to do.”

Betty Sakihara, a retired school administrative services assistant who lives in Aina Haina, said she likes Ige’s experience. She was already looking at perhaps not voting for Abercrombie, but was influenced further by the governor’s decision in July to withdraw from three of four debates with Ige scheduled with AARP Hawaii.

Sakihara, whose son is a public school teacher, was also motivated by Abercrombie’s clashes with teachers early in his term. “Overall, I’m thinking to myself, give David Ige a chance,” she said.

Beatrice Lemke-Newman, a retired saleswoman who lives in Kapaa on Kauai, said her vote for Ige was influenced by her niece, an elementary school teacher. Like many voters, she did not know very much about the state senator at the start of the campaign. “From watching his interviews and how he handled himself during the debates, I felt more favorably towards him,” she said.

Lemke-Newman said she has known of Abercrombie since she was a student at the University of Hawaii in the early 1970s. “To tell you the truth, I’ve never cared for Abercrombie from the start,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the other race in Hawaii yesterday, Senator Brian Schatz, who was appointed to the Seante after the death of Senator Daniel Inoyue, remains locked in a very tight race with Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa:

Neither U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz nor his Democratic primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, went to bed after Saturday’s primary election knowing who won their party’s nomination.

In one of the closest races in state history, Schatz and Hanabusa were separated by a mere 1,788 votes with all but two precincts accounted for and potentially as many as 8,000 votes from Hawaii island still to be tallied.

Election officials still need to tabulate votes from two Puna polling sites that were closed as a result of roads damaged by Tropical Storm Iselle, affecting about 8,000 registered voters. Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said ballots would be mailed to those who did not vote prior to Saturday by mail or walk-in and voters would have several days to return them.

Neither camp conceded Saturday night.

“We’ve got some more votes to be counted and we’ll see what happens there,” Schatz said in an interview with Hawaii News Now. “We came from behind and we like where we’re at.”

Schatz said he would wait until Sunday morning to start strategizing on the extended voting period.

Roland Casamina, a Schatz campaign co-chairman, said personal calls to Puna voters will be critical.

“We really have to go and contact the people we know on that island,” he said.

Former Gov. John Waihee said it’s going to be an “on the ground” campaign with lots of hand-shaking.

“I think the senator will do very well there,” he said.

Hanabusa had led since the results first started coming in, but Schatz closed the margin as more and more precincts reported.

“This election is not over,” Hanabusa told a crowd of enthusiastic supporters at her primary night rally at the Hawaii Laborers’ Union Local 368 hall in Kalihi. “It is far from over. Anything can happen.”

Afterward, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Irene Hirano Inouye, the widow of U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, all took the stage to reinforce that the race was not yet over. Hirono and Gabbard also visited the Schatz camp and a rally for Mark Takai, the winner of the Democratic primary to fill Hanabusa’s congressional seat.

The current vote count has Schatz leading Hanabusa by a slim 1,786 votes. Whether that holds up after the remaining absentee ballots have been counted and the two precincts on the Big Island have voted remains to be seen.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds 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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Grewgills says:

    Abercrombie’s (necessary) clash with the school teachers hurt him a lot and his stand on marriage equality hurt him with a mobilized religious vote. His appointment of Schatz despite Inouye’s wishes might also have cost him. Ige is a solid, hard working legislator if not so progressive or outspoken as Abercrombie.
    Hanabusa is, I think, a better fit for the House than the Senate, so I hope Schatz manages to edge her out.

  2. Pinky says:

    You’re never bigger than local politics. You’re never, ever bigger than local politics. I guess the voters didn’t blame Schatz for his appointment as senator as much as they blamed Abercrombie.

  3. Grewgills says:

    I think his face off with the teachers’ union hurt him more, but yes.