State Sen. Josh Green edged out his Senate colleague Jill Tokuda Saturday, in the five-way Democratic race to be Hawaii’s next lieutenant governor. Green captured 30.3 percent of the vote to Tokuda’s 27.5 percent, with almost all votes counted.
Green will now join the ticket of Gov. David Ige, who staved off a challenge from Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, in the November general election.
“My team put together an extraordinary plan to reach every voter with a message that we care and that this is about service, not politics,” said Green, who added that he knocked on the doors of 20,000 homes. “The combination of sharing an honest message with people and a lot of days walking door to door in my scrubs seems to have made a difference.”
In the Republican primary, Marissa Kerns, owner of a shipping and transportation company, narrowly beat Steve Lipscomb, a retired Air Force officer and former manager at Microsoft. Kerns will join Andria Tupola, the Republican nominee in the general election for governor.
The lieutenant governor’s office doesn’t have significant official powers, but candidates in this year’s primary vowed during the campaign to expand the role if elected. Green has said he wants to tackle the state’s homelessness problem and opioid addiction, in particular.
The office is often a springboard to higher office, including governor. Both Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono served as the state’s lieutenant governor before being elected to the U.S. Senate.
Green has served in the state Legislature for 14 years, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate representing Naalehu, Kailua and Kona. He’s also a doctor and has worked as a family physician and in emergency rooms in rural hospitals and clinics.
Green fought a well-funded campaign that got an extra boost from Be Change Now, a super PAC. Financed by the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, the political action committee has spent more than $1 million on support for Green.
The flood of support, perhaps the most that has ever been spent in a Hawaii lieutenant governor’s race, perplexed political observers. Some lawmakers speculated that it was really political retribution against Tokuda, who clashed with the pro-rail union over a rail bailout package in the Legislature last year. Other political observers say it could be a way of establishing an early influence over Green, who could be well positioned for a bid to be governor in four years.
Tokuda, who has represented Kailua and Kaneohe in the state Senate since 2006 and is the former chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, also ran a well-funded campaign. She scored a major endorsement from the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest union, in addition to multiple other union endorsements. She focused her campaign on improving public education and supporting working families.
Tokuda’s campaign was also aided by more than $250,000 in spending by the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly PAC, according to campaign spending data. However, Tokuda trailed in the polls throughout the primary.
John Hart, chairman of the communications department at Hawaii Pacific University, said the Tokuda campaign apparently held much of its money in reserve until the final portion of the primary race, which turned out to be a mistake.
“They made a decision to hold their money for a final blitz, and that allowed Green to be uncontested for weeks, and build up a lead,” he said.
A July poll taken by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser had Green up by 34 percent, compared to 14 percent for Tokuda — a margin that Tokuda closed in the final weeks of the primary.
The winner will replace Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, who took over for Shan Tsutsui in February. Tsutsui stepped down early from the office and joined the communications firm Strategies 360, later endorsing Hanabusa for governor.