Democrat Neil Abercrombie has been in the thick of Hawaii politics for four decades and is as well known in the islands as the state’s favorite son, President Barack Obama.
Still, Abercrombie’s 17-point drubbing Tuesday of Republican Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona surprised most everyone deeply involved in Hawaii politics.
According to several political observers in Hawaii, the road to Abercrombie’s latest big victory was paved by several factors: avoiding negative messages; a strong grass-roots effort; targeted appeals to constituencies; significant help from labor unions; and the endorsement of his Democratic primary rival.
"He has a way of connecting with folks that is very consistent with the way good island politicians do it," said Neal Milner, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Abercrombie helped make Hawaii a rare bright spot for Democrats on a night when Republicans rolled up huge gains in Congress and in governor’s offices. He replaces two-term Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, whose popularity has waned in the past two years.
Abercrombie served Hawaii in Congress for 20 years before stepping down to run for governor. He thumped former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the September primary by nearly 22 points.
Dyed-in-the-wool Republicans still picture the former congressman as a radical, hippie Vietnam War critic. But "his supporters see him through a policy lens," Milner said. "They see him as advocating the right policies."
State Rep. Kimberly Pine (R, Ewa Beach) said Abercrombie appropriated GOP themes, such as a vow not to raise the general excise tax and to steer more education decision-making to the school level. Abercrombie also promised Filipino residents to help bring their families in the Philippines to America, said Pine, whose district includes a significant Filipino community.
"That’s something very close and dear to their heart, so I can imagine (the Abercrombie campaign) was making promises to other niche groups as well," she said.
Hannemann’s endorsement of Abercrombie, including a late television ad, helped bring along moderate Democrats who had backed the former mayor. Abercrombie captured 6 in 10 of those voters, according to an AP exit poll.
Travis Taylor, a spokesman for Aiona’s campaign, said the loss of those moderates were a factor. Many of them crossed over in 2002 when Lingle became the first Republican governor in 40 years.
He attributed that in part to a late burst of negative ads from Democrats, unions and other allies that "unfairly but effectively assigned the full blame of emotional, controversial issues, such as teacher furloughs, to the governor and, by extension, the lieutenant governor."
Abercrombie, who himself was hit with a barrage of GOP-produced negative ads, repeatedly linked Aiona and Lingle.
Andrew Aoki, Abercrombie’s deputy campaign manager, said voters wanted change and that his candidate better convinced them he would accomplish that.
"I don’t know if it was so much our ability to tie him to Lingle as maybe it was his inability to untie himself from the administration," Aoki said of Aiona.
Aiona started at a disadvantage, given the political strength of unions that usually back Democrats with money and manpower — though the GOP tried to counter that with at least $750,000 in TV ads from the Republican Governors Association on Aiona’s behalf.
"That’s what the problem really is for the Republican Party," Milner said. "This shows the continuing historical and structural obstacles that the Republican Party has to face. I mean, I thought he actually ran a pretty good campaign."
Some GOP insiders are not so sure.
Marian Grey, who heads the GOP’s House District 18 committee, said she voted for Aiona but was unenthusiastic because he supports federal legislation to allow the creation of a sovereign native Hawaiian government, and because of his refusal to sign a no-new-taxes pledge.
Grey also said she wanted the state party to focus more on economic rather than religious issues. Party Chairman Jonah Ka’auwai said in August that an Aiona victory would give Hawaii its first "righteous leader."
"It turned me off, the party chair calling certain people ‘righteous,’" said Grey, who is Jewish. "I will never be what they consider to be ‘righteous.’"
Others said the GOP made a tactical error in not getting behind a moderate candidate for lieutenant governor who could better complement Aiona’s conservatism than the equally conservative Rep. Lynn Finnegan. They pointed to the moderate Lingle’s embrace of Aiona in 2002 as a model.
"I had told them, right straight, if you want to win, you need a moderate," said Garret Hashimoto, chairman of the Hawaii Christian Coalition.
Still, Aiona and his supporters were clearly buoyant the weekend before the election, given polls showing him within striking distance. That made the crushing defeat on Tuesday all the more devastating.
"I think we all believed that he had a chance," said Pine, the Republican representative of Ewa Beach.