In a Hawaii congressional contest overshadowed by more competitive races, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono says she’s fighting hard to hold on to her seat against tea party-endorsed airline pilot John Willoughby.
Willoughby, a Republican, wants to make a race out of his challenge to two-term Democratic incumbent Hirono, and he has picked up endorsements from tea party groups, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in hopes of closing the gap.
Hirono, 62, holds a big edge in fundraising and name recognition over Willoughby, 52, heading into the Nov. 2 election to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses the state’s neighbor islands and rural Oahu.
“Every race is competitive. That’s how I look at it, and I don’t take anything for granted,” Hirono said. “In my district, what they care about is having someone who’s going to fight for them and listen to them.”
For Willoughby, he has made a point of emphasizing how different he is from Hirono, saying he can’t think of anything they agree on.
“We’re opposed on virtually every single issue,” Willoughby said. “She knows that all these dollars she’s spending on her wasteful bailout schemes and her special interests are coming from the American people.”
Although both candidates say they’re campaigning hard on every neighbor island, the race isn’t generating the kind of voter interest needed to unseat an incumbent Democrat in Hawaii, said Todd Belt, a University of Hawaii at Hilo political science professor.
“It’s pretty under the radar,” Belt said. “There are very few stickers and signs. It’s a very low-profile campaign.”
The two candidates have met just once, at their first and only scheduled debate or forum this week in Kailua.
Hirono has aired two TV ads — on education and renewable energy — and she’s emphasizing her support for President Barack Obama’s initiatives to create jobs through federal funding for teachers and infrastructure.
She said she’s worked to bring federal money to Hawaii for neighbor island busses, Oahu’s rail project and early education for the homeless.
“I have a record for fighting for the working people and the middle class people in Hawaii,” Hirono said. “In my district, what voters care about is having somebody who’s going to fight for them and listen to them, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Willoughby said that if elected, his top priority would be to get Hawaii an exemption to the Jones Act, a federal law that requires vessels transporting goods between states to have been built in the United States, be crewed and owned by U.S. citizens, and fly the U.S. flag. He said the exemption would lower the price of goods sold in Hawaii by up to 22 percent.
“It there’s more money in the pockets of the people, it’s going to start generating through the economy, and that’s going to create jobs,” Willoughby said. “I’m not afraid of stepping on someone’s toes. I’m not afraid of doing the right thing.”
Hirono has a giant financial advantage over Willoughby, as she had raised $918,706 through Sept. 30, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Willoughby had raised $16,081 through Aug. 29, and the commission’s website didn’t list a more recent report from him.