Aromas of fried chicken and fish sauce wafted through a high school library as state Sen. David Ige, laugh lines showing, shook hands with supporters and neighborhood residents on a quiet evening in Honolulu.
The tone of Ige’s "stew-and-rice" event was a contrast to the attack ads outside super PACs have created, dominating Hawaii’s airwaves as Democrats and Republicans fight over which party will control the governor’s office.
"We cannot be complacent," Ige, a Democrat, said to the small crowd as polls showed him 12 points ahead of his Republican opponent, former Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona. "We need to ensure that each and every vote shows up on Nov. 4. We do know, and I know, that our opponents will be throwing everything and the kitchen sink at us."
Money from outside Hawaii has poured into what’s become a close fight between Ige and Aiona, making Honolulu the top spot for political action committee ads in the weeks before Election Day, according to spending tracker politicaladsleuth.com.
Email blasts from the Republican Governors Association began the day after the primary, when Ige turned Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s unpopularity into a historic upset, even though Ige was outspent 10-to-1. With the incumbent Democrat out, Republicans saw an opening that doesn’t usually present itself in Hawaii: an opportunity to take control of the state’s highest office.
"We feel very confident going into this year, even though it’s not always easy in Hawaii," said Ted Kwong, a strategist for the Hawaii Republican Party. "This is a prime year, the best that we’ve been in in years. … If you look at the primary, it’s a very volatile electorate that really doesn’t want the same old same old."
Finding strong Republican candidates in a state with only one Republican state senator isn’t easy. But the chances of a successful outcome for a Republican are better when the incumbent is out of the picture.
"I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t have a chance to win," Aiona said. "I’ve got a lot of support out there, and the only poll that matters is Nov. 4."
The Republican Governors Association has poured $1.8 million into TV ads and email blasts, playing up Ige’s role in Hawaii’s high tax rate and his similarities to Abercrombie, with photos of the two Democrats side-by-side.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Governors Association has made Hawaii one of its priorities for the upcoming election, said spokesman Danny Kanner. It funneled money to the super PAC Hawaii Forward, which spent $1.5 million on the campaign.
"We’re committed to keeping Hawaii a blue state and to ensuring voters understand that Duke Aiona … shares the policies, priorities and values with the national Republican party," Kanner said.
One ad says Aiona wants to ban abortion, even in the case of rape or incest. Aiona says any notion that he is poised to change abortion laws is far from the truth.
"It’s just a tactic that they’re using to fire up their base, to form a wedge between myself and women," Aiona said.
He said the ads from the Republican Governors Association focus on policy issues like Ige’s record on taxes and his role in developing the state’s troubled health insurance exchange.
"They’re not putting out things about his religious beliefs. Nothing like that is coming out from the RGA," Aiona said.
Republicans in Hawaii play down their party affiliation, so the Democratic ad focuses on Aiona’s Republican values, said Neal Milner, a political commentator.
"The whole thrust of that ad is that he accepts values that are contrary to yours," Milner said.
The race has been deemed unpredictable because three candidates — including Independent Party candidate Mufi Hannemann — are seen as viable. Hannemann received support from just 10 percent of voters in the most recent poll, however. Libertarian candidate Jeff Davis got 1 percent.
Carolyn Tanaka, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Hawaii Coordinated Campaign, called the RGA’s ads "classic mainland Republican politics" and said the group is inventing relationships and bringing up false issues.
Ige says he hasn’t been watching the ads that compare him to Abercrombie.
"I think that the primary election results really demonstrate the fact that people could differentiate between Gov. Abercrombie and myself," Ige said.