Hawaiian Punch: A Republican Governor In Paradise?

by Ryan Lovelace
Obama’s reverse Midas touch Pearl Harbors the Aloha State’s luckless governor.

Voters in Hawaii may have just paved the way for the Aloha State to get a Republican governor for only the second time in the state’s history.

Over the weekend, Governor Neil Abercrombie became the first Hawaiian governor to lose a primary. State senator David Ige received 67 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary against the incumbent governor, who had received the endorsement of President Obama, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Abercrombie’s defeat may open the door to a Republican takeover in November. In the general election, Ige will face former lieutenant governor James “Duke” Aiona, who served in former Republican governor Linda Lingle’s administration from 2002 to 2010. Aiona ran against Abercrombie as the Republican nominee for governor in 2010 and lost by double digits. But before Saturday’s primary results, Aiona led both Abercrombie and Ige in a July 21–29 poll conducted by the Star-Advertiser. In a three-way hypothetical matchup against Ige and former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann, Aiona led by seven points, with 41 percent.

While polling in Hawaii is difficult to conduct and the general-election campaigns have really just begun, a Hawaii GOP official tells National Review Online that he has yet to see one poll with Aiona down.

“And now what has he done up to this point? It’s not like he’s had a major, just crazy apparatus of people and door-to-door canvassing; it’s not like it’s some kind of massive effort,” the official, who requested anonymity, says. “Now think when this campaign goes into overdrive, when all that stuff is happening bam bam bam, in the next 90 days. If he has this lead now, where’s he going to be when this campaign is going full force?”

Aiona appears to be starting right where he left off. When he lost in 2010 he received 40.8 percent of the vote, an amount identical to his current poll numbers. But Hannemann appears to have given Aiona the edge by splitting the Democratic vote. Hannemann decided to run for governor as an independent after decades as a Democrat, who began his career in public service during the Carter administration. In the hypothetical matchup against Aiona and Ige, Hannemann received 15 percent of the vote. In 2010, the third-place candidate for governor received just 0.3 percent of all votes cast at the ballot box in November.

In 2010 voters wanted change regardless of the cost, but now, the GOP official tells NRO, Hawaiians have buyer’s remorse. The official says the election will turn on the issue of cost of living. “Am I going to be able to afford $4.25 [per gallon]? If I lose my job am I going to be able to pay my rent that’s $1,500 for a small studio?” the official says. “Especially cost of living for students: A big thing in Hawaii is that there’s such a mindset that when you graduate college you go to the mainland.”

Aiona grew up in Pearl City, Hawaii, played college basketball at the University of the Pacific in California, and then returned home to earn a law degree from the University of Hawaii, according to his website. A former circuit-court judge, Aiona on his website describes his campaign as built on trust, respect, and balance, but his strategy to win in Hawaii may involve distancing himself from the national GOP.

“I am a part of the Republican Party because the fundamental values I have are the fundamental values the party has,” he told National Journal in July. “But I am not a party person.” Aiona appeared to attempt to create separation between himself and Lingle in his interview with National Journal, saying, “The governor and I had some disagreements, but it was her administration, I’m a part of her team, I support her.”

The late-July poll numbers from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser show Aiona with a 63 percent favorability rating — greater  than Ige’s and much better than Abercrombie’s and Hannemann’s. But if Republicans do win back the governorship in November, they may need to thank President Obama. While Abercrombie’s unfavorable numbers neared 60 percent this July, Obama doubled down on his support for Abercrombie and recorded a radio advertisement. “He knew my parents before I was a twinkle in their eye, and he was one of the first people anywhere to step up and support me for president,” Obama can be heard saying. “So you could say that Governor Abercrombie has had my back since before I was born.”

Obama’s support did not appear to have any measurable positive impact on Hawaiian voters. The president’s lack of influence in Hawaii is noteworthy given that Hawaii had the highest approval rating for Obama among all 50 states in 2013.   

Obama has also backed Senator Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii), another early supporter of the president’s 2008 campaign against Hillary Clinton, according to the Washington Post. When Senator Daniel Inouye died in 2012, Abercrombie appointed Schatz, his own lieutenant governor, to replace the long-sitting senator. Abercrombie reportedly ignored Inouye’s dying wish that Representative Colleen Hanabusa fill his empty seat, and questioned whether Inouye wrote the letter pressuring Abercrombie to appoint Hanabusa, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Now, the race to become the Democratic nominee for the Senate is too close to call between Schatz and Hanabusa. But neither the president’s influence nor deep-pocketed Democrats — Abercrombie reportedly outspent Ige ten to one — appear capable of saving incumbent Democrats in Hawaii. No Hawaiian governor has lost reelection since 1962, according to the Star-Advertiser, and Schatz is fighting for his life against another Democrat.

Much has been made of the Tea Party–versus–establishment narrative in the GOP, but few people discuss the potential intra-party rebellion within the Democratic party or the potential for an anti-incumbent wave in 2014.    

— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.