As the final days of campaigning drew to a close in Hawaii’s dramatic primary races, a pair of big storms thrashed toward the islands.
The storms posed considerable risk, but for Gov. Neil Abercrombie, they also represented an opportunity to cast himself as a steady leader with a strong emotional connection to people in the state.
He hugged military response personnel, emphasized his national network of contacts and, even as forecasters predicted the storms would weaken and veer away, Abercrombie reminded everyone to remain vigilant.
Whether this final image will be decisive for voters casting ballots on Saturday was not yet known. The incumbent governor faces a surprisingly strong challenge from a fellow Democrat and many voters had already cast ballots during early voting before Tropical Storm Iselle hit the islands.
The governor’s race was not the only one splitting the Democratic Party establishment during Saturday’s primary. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz to determine who will fill the rest of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s term.
The winners of each race will face Republicans and independent candidates in the November general election, but such campaigns are longshots in heavily Democratic Hawaii.
Schatz has outspent Hanabusa by more than $1 million, and his ads dominated the airwaves. But Hanabusa has attracted many of Inouye’s supporters, who felt it was disrespectful for Abercrombie to disregard the political icon’s dying wish to have Hanabusa be appointed his successor. Abercrombie chose Schatz, his lieutenant governor.
Hanabusa evoked Inouye’s name throughout the campaign, aligning herself with the traditional Hawaii political establishment, while Schatz touted his endorsement from President Barack Obama.
“I feel as though both candidates are equally qualified,” said voter Paul Pollock, 60, who works in the maritime industry and voted for Schatz. “But I’d like to shed the old guard, as it were, and give someone who wasn’t an Inouye designate a chance.”
As the storm winds and rains died down, election officials assessed the impact and decided to press on with Saturday’s primary. Voting at two polling places in Puna, on the Big Island, was postponed due to damaged roadways, but Hawaii Office of Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla said the state’s other 229 polling places opened without reports of any serious glitches or delays.
There also were no signs that the storms hampered turnout, Quidilla said.
Abercrombie’s calm demeanor as Iselle thrust through the islands was a contrast to just days earlier, when at a campaign rally he defended his record– fists raised — after a poll was released that showed him trailing his opponent, state Sen. David Ige, by 18 points.
“Somebody said to me today, ‘What do you think about the fact that some people are upset with you because of the decisions that you made?'” Abercrombie said to the crowd, practically shouting. “Every decision I made was on behalf of Hawaii, and every decision I made I said at the time, ‘Let’s see what the results are of facing the tough choices and making the tough decisions.’ And the results are in, and the results are that Hawaii is in a better position today than it has ever been.”
Ige mounted his challenge despite being outspent by about 10 to 1. While Abercrombie tore through $4.9 million through July 25, Ige spent just $447,000, according to Hawaii’s Campaign Spending Commission.
Challenging the incumbent Democrat may have hurt Ige’s ability to fundraise. But Ige, a respected state senator who served in the Legislature for 28 years, felt Hawaii was headed in the wrong direction, and that too many of the governor’s decisions were dividing communities, he said.
“There were many in the party that did not want me to run,” Ige said in a recent interview. “They felt like the incumbent should be supported.”
Many Ige voters said they weren’t necessarily taken in by Ige — they just didn’t like Abercrombie.
“Hawaii is such a small place that you have to be really careful about what bridges you burn,” said Carrie Shoda-Sutherland, 39, a Honolulu education researcher who voted for Ige. “I think there’s an overall sense that he’s not as relationship-based as you have to be in Hawaii.”
Voters who cast their ballots for Ige ahead of the primary cited disappointment with the way Abercrombie handled contract negotiations with teachers and his past support for a plan to tax pensions.
Others credited Abercrombie for making tough choices to get the state out of a recession.
“I think it’s sad that his reputation is being tarnished by a group that thinks he short-shrifted them,” said Allen Hoe, 67, a lawyer who voted for Abercrombie.
Former Gov. John Waihee, another Abercrombie supporter, questioned the accuracy of the recent poll.
“We don’t need to win by 25 points, by 10 points,” Waihee said at Abercrombie’s rally. “We need to win by one vote.”