Unseating a longtime incumbent is no simple feat, even in normal circumstances.
But throw in quarantine edicts, social distancing guidelines and other COVID-19 precautions and the challenges are heightened, say local candidates and political officials.
In an election year in which voting will be conducted for the first time in Hawaii on a mail-only basis and several key seats are up for grabs on Maui and across the state, candidates have been hard-pressed to find alternative means of engaging with constituents.
Consider 47-year-old Makawao resident Simon Russell, a farmer, consultant and watershed protection lobbyist who is challenging state Rep. Kyle Yamashita in the Democratic Party primary for the state House of Representatives District 12 seat (Spreckelsville, Upcountry, Kahului), which Yamashita has occupied since 2004.
Russell, who ran for the District 13 seat, which includes East Maui, in 2012, filed papers early with the intention of growing his campaign organically through traditional canvassing and community gatherings. But that was before the arrival of COVID-19 and subsequent declarations of emergency measures to prevent its spread.
“COVID-19 has not been healthy for my candidacy,” said Russell with a mirthless chuckle. “You have to shake hands and knock on doors. It’s the only way to get elected. It’s nice to have a website and do social media, but there’s nothing like looking someone in the eye and asking for their vote.”
Instead, Russell, who majored in agriculture and computer science in college, has placed greater emphasis on social media such as Facebook to make connections and spread his message of economic diversification, climate-change preparedness and water security for the Upcountry district.
He does it, often, from his home, which now doubles as a day care center and schoolhouse for his four children, ages 1 to 7. He does it even as he seeks to keep afloat his two primary lines of business — Hui o Malama ‘Aina LLC, an agricultural consulting company, and Farm Maui LLC, a licensed contracting company focused on farm operations and management — both of which have been significantly affected by the ongoing restrictions.
“My opponent is a political machine,” Russell said of Yamashita. “He knows how to win and he’s well funded.”
But Russell is optimistic he can pull off an upset. For one thing, he said, the current coronavirus crisis and its impact on tourism has made the public more aware of the need for a diversified economy and greater self-sufficiency within the state.
Russell said much will ride on voter participation, which in the 2018 primary election saw only a little over 36% of registered Maui County’s voters cast ballots — the lowest percentage in the state.
“People don’t turn out for the primaries,” he said. “And in Hawaii most elections are over after the primary.
“I hope young people register online and vote by mail,” Russell said. “This could be the highest voter turnout in Hawaii history.”
State Rep. Angus McKelvey, who has represented House District 10 (West Maui, Maalaea, North Kihei) since 2006, said well-funded incumbents might indeed have an advantage in being able to tap deeper war chests for print and broadcast advertising and other campaign tactics, but that may not be enough to overcome what he sees as a groundswell of public dissatisfaction exacerbated by current and anticipated economic conditions.
“The populace is beyond disdainful of politics right now,” he said. “The last thing they want to hear is ‘Vote for me.’ They’re standing in food lines. They’re frustrated over the (unemployment insurance filing) meltdown. They’re upset at how slow assistance is in coming. They’re just trying to make ends meet.
“There will be upsets in some races,” he predicted. “People are scared, frustrated and angry.”
A self-professed “social media dude,” McKelvey said whatever resources he might have are being directed toward leveraging platforms like Facebook to share information, reach out to constituents and advocate for the community. He also been using the phone to call people in his district to listen to concerns and provide reassurance and assistance where he can.
The pandemic “has leveled the playing field,” he said. “In less than three months, all the old rules are out the window. I think in the future, large-scale meetings and rallies will be passe. You can’t just dump money into mass mailings and advertising. It’s a one-on-one game.”
The Hawaii Republican Party, long accustomed to battling uphill, has embraced digital media this cycle to highlight candidates, engage potential voters and build cohesion.
While acknowledging a significant digital divide between the older residents who make up the party’s core constituency and the younger voters it hopes to engage, Hawaii GOP Chairwoman Shirlene Ostrov said technology has been a key driver of the 2020 campaign season.
The party was able to conduct all of its candidate training, typically a difficult-to-coordinate program consisting of 10 weekly sessions, in just five weeks via Zoom videoconferencing.
“It was an interesting experience that allowed them to focus,” Ostrov said. “Candidates that might not usually interact became a tight cohort learning from each other. There’s nothing like being in person, but we set up situations to use to our advantage, and it was a real benefit to the candidates.”
The party is also leaning heavily on Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms to reach voters. For the last several weeks, GOP organizers have offered “MAGA Meetups” via Facebook Live to introduce voters to candidates.
As with every election, candidates and officials from both parties say voter turnout will be critical in 2020, and the hope is that Hawaii’s first-ever experience with mail-in voting will increase participation. But that will depend in large part on efforts by state and county election officials to ensure residents understand that traditional polling centers will not be open this year and that voting will be conducted by mail or in-person ballot drop-off at designated sites.
And like political campaigning, voter education outreach is being challenged by pandemic-related restrictions.
Kathy Kaohu and James Krueger were confirmed as Maui County clerk and deputy county clerk, respectively, just a month before the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the state and less than six weeks before Gov. David Ige instituted the first of several measures intended to prevent the spread of the disease.
Kaohu said her office of 16 was quick to respond by adopting recommended preventive protocols and installing hanging Plexiglas barriers to limit personal contact. She said operations “haven’t missed a beat” even as appointment hours have been limited and most communication with prospective candidates has been shifted to phone and email.
COVID-19 concerns notwithstanding, Kaohu said the current election cycle was a good time to implement mail-only voting. The challenge, she said, is in making sure every eligible voter is aware of the change and prepared to follow the required steps.
“Some people don’t even realize it’s mail-only,” Kaohu said. “We had a robust schedule of informative meetings in the community planned, but all of that fell by the wayside. We’ll continue to work with community associations to make sure we hit the front line of the community.”