It would be easy to write off Mufi Hannemann as politically dead after his two crushing loses — first to Neil Abercrombie in the 2010 governor’s race, and then his defeat to Tulsi Gabbard in the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary in 2012.
But Hannemann at age 59 doesn’t appear ready to roll over. His friends say he is considering running for the 1st Congressional District seat to be vacated by Colleen Hanabusa in her bid for the Senate seat held by Brian Schatz.
In an email, Hannemann told me: “For the most part, I have been super busy enjoying my consulting and non-profit work both in and out of Hawaii. Nonetheless, discussions are taking place regarding 2014. At this point, however, I have no definitive plans to report.”
The logic is that in the crowded Democratic primary field with six candidates already running, Hannemann, by holding on to the base of support he has had over his political career, could pull it off with 20 percent to 25 percent of the vote. In even his most humiliating loses in political races, Hannemann has always captured more than 30 percent of the vote.
Others running in the primary for the 1st District seat are Honolulu City Councilman Ikaika Anderson, Councilman Stanley Chang, state Sen. Will Espero, state Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, state Rep. Mark Takai and human trafficking opponent Kathryn Xian.
Hannemann has high name recognition, a Harvard degree and has proven leadership skills as a former Honolulu mayor and Honolulu City Council chairman. He showed his political strength by getting the long dust-gathering Oahu rail plan up and on its tracks.
He is a known political brand but his brand is flawed and that is exactly how, despite all the positives, Hannemann could get clobbered again.
Here are five ways Hannemann could lose a fourth attempt to become a member of the U.S. House.
1.) Hannemann could tank again on a congressional bid or in any other Hawaii race if he is perceived as arrogant like he was in the 2012 Democratic primary when he failed to take the threat of opponent Tulsi Gabbard seriously until it was too late.
Hannemann was so taken aback by Gabbard’s strength he had to scramble toward the end of the race to pour personal money into his campaign. Federal Election Commission records show Hannemann still has outstanding personal loans of $257,265 from that race.
Political analyst Neal Milner says: “Mufi will lose if he shows any lack of understanding of his opponent, if he is disdainful of any of the other candidates. He can’t be overconfident in the power of his name recognition to pull him through.”
2.) To avert failure, Hannemann needs to overcome the perennial complaint that he is a bully. Some of his bully image, fair or unfair, is enhanced by his height — he is 6-feet, 7-inches tall — and his ambitious, steamroller personality. Unless Hannemann can show voters he is the nicest guy in the world his critics will say, “there he goes again. Same old Mufi.”
Hannemann has been busy rebranding himself in his MidWeek column, trying to show readers a kinder and gentler side of his personality that his friends say was always there. A recent column begins this way: “Growing up in the Hannemann household, Christmas was filled with laughter, musical and magical moments. My sweet mother shopped for bargains year-round to make sure we had precious gifts during the holidays.”
He also appears to be using the column to create a more compelling narrative about his past as the dutiful son of a struggling but loving and community-minded Samoan family.
3.) Hannemann could also lose if he goes too far in the gentle, soft direction. In his 2012 campaign for Congress, he seemed to be overcompensating for the “bully” accusation by deferring to his opponents in debates when he should have been showing off his razor-sharp intelligence. Public relations professional and political operative Keith Rollman, who has worked for Hannemann in the past, says, “if I were to give him advice I would tell him to be more like Frank Fasi and forget about what people say about you. When you try to be something other than yourself, it will always come back to bite you.”
4.) The fourth way Hannemann could lose would be to engage in heavy-handed, negative, character-attack campaigning as he has in the past, sometimes at the urging of Rollman. The “Compare and Decide” brochure Rollman helped design for Hannemann’s gubernatorial run against Neil Abercrombie badly backfired. Some say it cost Hannemann the governor’s race. It would be fatal to try something like that again.
The “Compare and Decide” mailer pointed out Abercrombie’s mainland birth, listed racial differences between Hannemann’s and Abercrombie’s wives and pointed out that Hannemann had gone to Harvard while Abercrombie’s graduate degrees were from the University of Hawaii. Many voters disliked the brochure, feeling it also belittled them for attending the University of Hawaii. Rollman continues to defend the information in the controversial mailer as factual and sourced.
5.) Hannemann could lose by failing to bring in a large group of his own more conservative supporters to overcome the power of Oahu’s liberal, left-leaning Democrats to pick the winners in primary races.
Party progressives don’t like Hannemann. Political analyst Milner says, “They still think Mufi is a toady to big business, a Republican in disguise.”
Hannemann would need to successfully rally voters from the religious right to cast votes in the primary — the Christian conservatives who appreciate his opposition to same-sex marriage. And even wooing conservatives might not be enough because he’d have to share part of the religious right vote with Donna Kim, who is also an opponent of gay marriages.
Randy Perreira, the executive director of the 43,000-member Hawaii Government Employees Association points out the difficulty of vote-splitting between Hannemann and Kim, and possibly even Takai, if Hannemann enters the race. “They will all be fishing in the same pond,” said Perreira. “That could hurt Mufi.”
The main thing Hannemann will have to do if he wants to win any race is temper himself. In the past, Hannemann has steamrollered ahead with terrible campaign ideas when members of his inner circle have struggled to restrain him.
J.N. Musto, the executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, says: “Mufi has been able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by his attitude toward each race and his tendency to attack other candidates; by the fact he doesn’t listen.”
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano thinks Hannemann could win the 1st Congressional District Seat with his past voter demographic. But, Cayetno says, “Hannemann needs to do positive things. He needs to stick to highlighting his background. He is very cunning. In the past, he has let his ambition get ahead of him and made bad decisions.”
Union leader Perreira says the big question critical to a possible Hannemann victory is “has he successfully rehabbed his image?”