Republican candidate James “Duke” Aiona lost by 17 percentage points to Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie in Hawaii’s last gubernatorial election.
It’s never been easy for a Republican to win a statewide office in Hawaii, but Aiona’s supporters say the odds are much better this year.
Aiona has been out of office for four years and doesn’t have to deflect criticism of former GOP Gov. Linda Lingle, under whom he served for eight years as lieutenant governor.
Aiona says, “When Abercrombie ran in 2010 he did a good job of convincing people he was a fresh face. Now he’s the one with a record to defend.”
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And the same-sex marriage dynamic has changed with the legalization of gay marriages last year. Aiona supporters say the marriage issue is less likely now to hold him down than it did in 2010.
GOP strategist and former executive director of the Hawaii Republican Party Dylan Nonaka says, “Duke can win this time and Mufi helps him. Duke doesn’t necessarily need to get a lot of Democrats to vote for him in the general election, he just needs them to refrain from voting for the Democrat who wins the primary.”
Aiona is expected to be running in the general election against either Democratic state Sen. David Ige or Democratic incumbent Abercrombie, and Hawaii Independent Party candidate Mufi Hannemann.
Solar contractor Jeff Davis will be running in the general as a Libertarian, but the majority of the votes are expected to be split between the Democratic and Republican party candidates and Hannemann.
In a three-way race, a victor needs far fewer votes to win — only a plurality, not the 50 percent plus one vote necessary to win a two-person race.
GOP analyst Nonaka says the recent private and public poll numbers show Aiona pulling a solid 40 percent to 45 percent of Hawaii voters, which Nonaka says would be enough for Aiona to win.
Analyst Nonaka’s scenario for Aiona to become governor depends on disgruntled Abercrombie supporters after a possible Abercrombie loss in the primary throwing their votes to Independent Party candidate Mufi Hannemann rather than to Ige.
Or if bitter Ige supporters after a possible Ige loss vote in the general election for Hannemann instead of Abercrombie.
Or if some angry Democrats just throw their hands up in the air and refuse to vote in the general.
In that scenario, Hannemann is a “spoiler” who siphons off votes from the Democrat candidate but not enough votes for Hannemann to win.
A problem with the scenario, however, is many Democrat critics consider Hannemann a Republican in disguise and would be uncomfortable voting for him.
Political analyst and Civil Beat columnist Neal Milner says he can’t see disgruntled Democrats angry about a primary election outcome ever supporting Hannemann.
Milner says: “Since when in Hawaii does voter anger lead to defection from the Democratic party?”
And even if there is a lot of voter anger among Democrats after an Ige or Abercrombie defeat in the primary, there will be three months until the general election for either a victorious Abercrombie or Ige to pull Democrats to their side.
Hawaii used to have only 45 days between the September and November elections.
But in 2012, a new law changed the primary date to early August leaving 90 days time between the primary and general elections. This is the first governor’s election with the new longer time between elections.
Another key dynamic has changed this election to bolster Aiona. Same-sex marriages are now legal in Hawaii. Aiona’s recent speeches show him trying to keep the issue from becoming the divisive bogeyman it was for him in 2010 when he spoke out strongly and frequently against gay marriages.
Today, Aiona’s tone on the marriage issue is nuanced.
During the conservative Christian Pastors’ Luncheon I covered as a reporter earlier this month, a woman in the audience asked keynote speaker Aiona if he were elected what he could do to revoke the same-sex marriage law.
“My focus in not in overturning that legislation,” Aiona answered.
“What we need to do now is to start living our lives so we set an example for others,” Aiona said. “If you believe marriage should be between a man and a woman, live your life as a married man and woman as a model for others to see. That is what I am trying to do as best I can.”
The focus of conservative Christian leaders has also shifted now from same-sex marriages to the special legislative session in which the bill was approved when lawmakers ignored the conservatives’ push for a popular vote on the marriage issue.
“Anger about the special session is motivating a lot of new voters, people who feel their voices were not heard, that same-sex marriages were forced on them,” says Garret Hashimoto, president of the Hawaii Christian Coalition.
Christian conservative organizations such as Hawaii Family Forum are making an effort to activate new voters.
Hawaii Family Advocates president Jim Hochberg says when the name of each same-sex marriage opponent who testified at the special session was checked against a list of registered Hawaii voters it was discovered most were not registered to vote.
Aiona, in his speech at the Pastors’ Luncheon, said he was dismayed that so many were non-voters.
“Only 30 percent were registered to vote,” he said. “What’s insane is the other 70 percent who went through the process to try to make political change were not even registered to vote. We have to talk this up.”
A group called iVote Hawaii has distributed voter registration information to churches across the state. In its brochure, iVote Hawaii says its mission is to “educate our community members on the issues and candidates by providing resources and materials based on a Christian world-view.”
Political analyst Milner says the only way Aiona could pull ahead would be if all Christian conservatives who rallied loud and strong to oppose same-sex marriage during last year’s special legislative were mobilized to show up at the polls.
“That would be a game-changer,” says Milner. But he said he doesn’t expect it to happen.
“The Christian right has not been successful in the past in organizing large numbers of people to vote, “ says Milner.
Eva Andrade, executive director of Hawaii Family Forum, says, “There are a lot of family issues people are starting to wake up and pay attention to. Their participation opposing same-sex marriage at the special session showed them politics is not as scary as they thought it was in the past.”
Alan Cardenas Jr., the pastor of Hope Chapel Nanakuli, says: “One of the biggest challenges we face is pastors who hesitate to participate because of church and state separation issues. But we are saying all people have a civic responsibility to get involved in society.
“I have no idea at this point what kind of impact we are going to have if any.”
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.