Brian Schatz, former chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, appears to have the advantage in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, a new Hawaii Poll shows, although state Sen. Norman Sakamoto has broken though a crowded field on the strength of his television advertising.
Schatz had 27 percent, Sakamoto had 21 percent and several other Democrats were trailing. But the poll also found that a large number of voters — 21 percent — were undecided, so the race may not have fully left the starting gate.
The primary for lieutenant governor does not receive the same amount of public interest as the governor’s race, and the Hawaii Poll found that voters are not as familiar with the candidates.
"The undecided rate is 2 1/2 times higher than the governor’s race," said Neal Milner, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. "And that’s not surprising. It means things are still in a state of flux."
Milner said Schatz, who has also led in several private polls, appears to have the edge. He said it may be difficult for the other candidates to change the order.
"The support for lieutenant governor candidates is not real deep," he said, in comparison with the Democratic primary for governor between former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann.
"People don’t have a whole lot of cues to go on the way they do for Mufi and Neil. So this is all kind of new territory for them."
The Hawaii Poll was taken by Ward Research for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now. The interviews were conducted from Aug. 10 to Tuesday by telephone among 425 likely Democratic primary voters statewide. The margin of error was 4.8 percentage points.
A larger sample of 604 likely voters statewide was asked about the candidates’ favorability ratings. The margin of error for those questions was 4 percentage points.
Schatz, a former Makiki state lawmaker, built some name recognition through his unsuccessful 2006 campaign in the Democratic primary in the 2nd Congress- ional District, which covers Central, Leeward and Windward Oahu and the neighbor islands. He served as party chairman and helped lead Hawaii-born Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Hawaii two years ago. He was also chief executive officer for the nonprofit Helping Hands Hawaii before stepping down in June.
Schatz, who has been endorsed by the Hawaii Government Employees Association, had the highest favorability rating of any of the candidates, at 35 percent. Nineteen percent had an unfavorable opinion of Schatz. Thirty percent had not heard of him.
"We’re pleased because it demonstrates that people agree that we need to focus on creating economic opportunity for everyone, improving public education and delivering a government that’s accountable to everyone," Schatz said.
Sakamoto, a civil engineer and general contractor who represents Salt Lake in the Senate, made the tactical decision to spend his campaign money early on television ads. The poll suggests the ads paid off.
Not only is Sakamoto second in the poll, he had the second-highest favorability rating at 28 percent. Eighteen percent had an unfavorable opinion of Sakamoto. Thirty-one percent had not heard of him.
Sakamoto, chairman of the Senate Education and Housing Committee, was involved in the compromise at the state Legislature this year to end teacher furloughs. He has also called for an increase in the general excise tax to help finance public education and provide tax breaks for the poor and middle class.
Sakamoto, a Christian opposed to civil unions, might benefit if religious conservatives follow through on their promise to vote this year in higher numbers because of concerns about civil unions and other social issues.
"For me, I’m happy that the voters understand the importance of experience. That’s one of the things that we’ve tried to show, especially the importance of experience in education," Sakamoto said. "I guess with the large number of undecided voters, we still have a long way to go."
Former state Sen. Robert Bunda, who represented Wahiawa and the North Shore, was third in the poll. The former Senate president, a fiscal and social conservative, said he plans a late advertising campaign. He noted that private polls have the race much closer and believes the Hawaii Poll may not have captured enough independents.
"It doesn’t really reflect the independent voters that are out there," he said. "I feel that the independent voters will make the difference in this election."
Former state Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, who represented Kauai and Niihau, was fourth in the poll. Hooser is popular among progressives and environmentalists. His campaign released a television ad last week reminding voters of his support for civil unions, linking civil unions to the historic struggle for equal rights.
He said it is significant that he won the endorsement of the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter over Schatz and the backing of the Hawaii State Teachers Association over Sakamoto.
"I think it’s relevant. We’re gaining traction," Hooser said. "The fact that they chose us and not the other guy is a strong message."
State Rep. Lyla Berg and state Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu were trailing.
"They’re numbers," said Berg, a former teacher and school principal who would make early childhood education, improving public schools and work force development her priorities. "I think what’s most important for people to look at is the candidates, of course, and what they stand for."
State House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan and lawyer Adrienne King are the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor.
TONIGHT ON HAWAII NEWS NOW
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