Political veteran Colleen Hanabusa is apparently ready to gamble that what seemed like a lightning bolt in 2014 will strike again in 2018.
Only once since statehood has a sitting governor been ousted in a primary election, when David Ige unseated Gov. Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2014. But Hanabusa apparently believes she has the reputation, the political smarts and the fundraising prowess to make history repeat itself.
Hanabusa, who has for five years represented the 1st Congressional District, which includes urban Honolulu, announced Friday she will file papers to establish her campaign committee for a challenge to Ige, the Democratic incumbent governor.
Her decision sets up what likely will be a hard-fought Democratic primary race in 2018, and could prompt a scramble among candidates who hope to replace Hanabusa in Congress.
“Throughout my career, I have fortunately gained the skill set and the experience to address the issues facing us,” Hanabusa said in a written statement. “Hawaii is the best place to be in our great country. I believe we need experienced leadership to continue the Hawaii that I care so deeply about and love.”
Hanabusa, 66, has served 17 years in elected office, including 12 years in the state Senate. She was Hawaii’s first female state Senate president, a job she held for her last four years in that chamber.
The Ige campaign issued its own statement welcoming Hanabusa into the race.
“I look forward to giving voters the opportunity to compare our records of achievement and visions for the future,” Ige said in the statement. “I hope to build on the solid foundation my administration has established in our first three years.”
Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said Hanabusa apparently aims to capitalize on a general, seemingly nonspecific discontent with the Ige administration thus far.
“That’s going to be a challenge for his campaign,” Moore said. “I think people are unhappy, and it’s not really clear what issue it is that they are unhappy with. That might be a failure in some ways on the part of Gov. Ige, and his failure to communicate his accomplishments.”
Tourism is strong, unemployment is low and even the crime rate is down, but still there is “a sense that the state is not particularly well run,” Moore said. “Whether that’s fair or not, I don’t know, but I think that is the sense from voters. … Whether it’s fair or not, he’s stuck with how people feel generally about state government.”
Some longtime political observers, who spoke on condition that they not be identified, agreed.
“David has to get his story out, or he will be defined by the rumor mills and the Colleen Hanabusa people … that he is weak and ineffective, and he has not been,” said one state official who has been active in campaigns. “The story has to come out before it’s too late, because once it sets in the minds of the voters, it’s going to be hard to turn their thinking.”
Moore said Hanabusa likely will be the favorite in the primary because she is respected, and after her many years in politics, she is probably as familiar to voters as Ige.
Democratic primaries tend to be dominated by specific groups such as union members and Americans of Japanese ancestry, and Ige and Hanabusa might divide those groups up between them.
Both Hanabusa and Ige are AJAs, and that particular ethnic vote pool may be divided in the primary. Ige received strong support from Okinawans in particular and the AJA community in general in the 2014 primary when he defeated Abercrombie.
Ige recently reached contract settlements with almost all of the public worker unions, which might help him secure the support of tens of thousands of teachers and other unionized state and county employees, but Hanabusa also has deep and long-standing ties with unions in Hawaii.
Fundraising will be another major variable.
Ige has said he plans to raise $1 million before the end of the year to prepare for the campaign, and plans to raise $2.5 million to $3 million to secure another four-year term.
However, Ige had less than $250,000 on hand June 30 to fund his re-election effort, and Moore predicted that fundraising will be critical.
“I think money is going to sort of be an indicator of who the major interests in the state are going to support,” Moore said. “By raising money, they’ll be able to indicate, and you’ll get a sense of who the favored candidate is. … If Hanabusa ends up looking pretty clearly like she’s going to out-raise Ige, then it’s very hard for me to imagine a path to victory for him.”
Moore described both Ige and Hanabusa as relatively liberal Democrats, which presents a potential problem for Hanabusa.
“That’s going to be her challenge,” Moore said. “Why should Democrats support a challenger when the policies aren’t particularly different?”
Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho is also considering running for governor as a Democrat, and state Rep. Andria Tupola has filed a new organizational report with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission that indicates she plans to run for governor as a Republican.