Republican Cam Cavasso is making his third consecutive bid to fill the U.S. Senate seat once held by the late Dan Inouye.
Cavasso is a Christian fundamentalist, a socially conservative champion of views that often fall flat in Democrat-dominated Hawaii.
I have been curious for some time to find out why the relatively unknown, underfunded Cavasso keeps running for office when his proposals consistently fail to capture the imagination of most of Hawaii’s liberal Democrats. And when he has had to struggle to raise money in each of his two previous attempts to unseat Inouye.
Now as he faces off against another well-funded opponent, Democrat incumbent U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, Cavasso is again scrambling to find money.
Cavasso spoke with me on the phone before he took off on Sunday for Washington, D.C., to seek financial backing and support for his candidacy from national GOP sources.
He told me he keeps campaigning because “I have been called to run for the Senate by my family, my state and by my God.”
He says political leadership is where his gifts and talents lie and it would be wrong not to use those gifts.
Cavasso is a self-proclaimed born-again Christian who says he received his calling to God in 1978. He is a member of the First Assembly of God Church in Red Hill where he teaches a Bible study class to adults every Sunday except for when he is in the middle of a political campaign.
Cavasso runs a turf grass and erosion control farm on seven acres in Waimanalo. He has also worked a financial advisor for MassMutual Financial Group for the last 29 years.
He has five children and 10 grandchildren and served in the Army for five years, rising to the rank of captain.
Cavasso has deep roots in Hawaii. His great-grandfather Frank Davey was a photographer in Honolulu from 1896 to 1905.
Davey photographed Hawaii’s annexation and Hawaiian royalty including Princess Kaiulani and Queen Liliuokalani. He also photographed Native Hawaiian surfers in then hotel-free Waikiki and the outbreak of the bubonic plague in Honolulu’s Chinatown.
“I have been called to run for the Senate by my family, my state and by my God.” — Cam Cavasso
The 63 year-old Cavasso grew up in Kailua where he attended Kailua Elementary and Intermediate Schools and was the student body president at Kailua High School his senior year.
Kailua plumber and contractor Joe Correa who grew up on the same street with Cavasso in Lanikai says Cavasso was always fascinated by the ocean and he rallied all the boys in the neighborhood to learn how to sail in a boat Cavasso and his father built.
“He was always trying to get us fired up to do something interesting, something we never would have done on our own,” says Correa.
Cavasso is an avid canoe steersman who has paddled the Molokai to Oahu canoe race 10 times and is preparing to participate in the race again next month as steersman for New Hope Canoe Club.
“I love being on the ocean, feeling the motion of the waves, the surge of the canoe, the crew working together,” he says.
Cavasso uses the image of a canoe steersman to talk about what he says is his ability to draw people together to work toward the same goal:
“I still have a calling to serve our people. I am running to be able to communicate values that are important to Hawaii’s future.”
His values include opposition to gay marriage and a woman’s right to an abortion, gambling, legalizing marijuana and physician-assisted suicide.
If elected, he says, a key goal will be to bring down the cost of living in Hawaii by doing away with regulations that stifle business. Among his key initiatives he says will be a call for an exemption for Hawaii to current federal law — the Jones Act — that requires ships to be built in the U.S., which he says greatly raises the cost of shipping to the islands.
“I want to get the U.S. government off of Hawaii’s back.” He is especially opposed to the federal government setting standards for state schools.
In his last two runs against Inouye, Cavasso gained 21 percent of the vote to Inouye’ s 76 percent but he is undeterred by the past numbers and says this year he expects to win.
When I ask why, he says because Hawaii’s currently unpopular governor Neil Abercrombie appointed Schatz to the U.S. Senate seat.
“People did not want Abercrombie. People do not want Schatz.”
Cavasso has not been elected to public office for 23 years.
He adds Hawaii’s voters are angry that Abercrombie appointed Schatz to the Senate seat despite Inouye’s dying wish, which was to have Colleen Hanabusa replace him.
Cavasso says, “ I am getting calls from Hanabusa’s supporters saying, ‘Cam, we want you to win. What can we do to help you?’”
Cavaasso calls Schatz “a far left progressive liberal.” That political leaning, Cavasso says, is out of touch with Hawaii’s residents whom he believes are far more conservative and family oriented now than political analysts might think.
Andy Blom, the Cavasso campaign’s general consultant, says,“People in Hawaii believe in protecting the unborn child and they are against social engineering like Pono Choices (a sex education program for 11 to 14 year olds in Hawaii’s public schools)” – a program Cavasso strongly opposes.
Cavasso says it makes good sense to elect him now. “This year will result in a majority for Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Republicans already have the House. It is in Hawaii’s best interest to have a Republican senator in Washington. “
Political analyst Neal Milner says besides the difficulty of running as a Republican in a Democrat state, Cavasso is not well known. He hasn’t been in the public eye recently.
“He is not a refreshing new face,” says Milner. “Yet he does not have a lot of political experience.”
Cavasso has not been elected to public office for 23 years. He served three consecutive terms in the state House representing Kailua-Waimanalo from 1985 to 1991.
He has never won a statewide office. In 2002, Republican Duke Aiona defeated Cavasso in the Republican primary race for lieutenant governor.
Cavasso failed in his bids to beat Inouye in 2004 and 2010.
When he was making his second run for the U.S. Senate seat, Cavasso even poked fun at it himself in a humorous TV spot that labeled his candidacy “crazy” for going up against Democratic powerhouse Inouye who then had been in the Senate then for 48 years.
In Cavasso’s 2010 bid, Inouye raised 25 times more money than Cavasso did.
But Cavasso is undaunted by the reality of coming into this general election with only $13,535 cash on hand after the primary election. In the most recent Federal Election Commission report, Schatz reported having $976, 970 in the bank.
Cavasso says political campaigns are not about money anymore.
He points to David Ige’s double-digit victory over Abercrombie who spent $5.5 million on the race to Ige’s $500,000. Also, he mentions the stunning primary election defeat of U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia who lost to newcomer tea party opponent David Brat after outspending Brat 25 to 1.
Cavasso says with today’s technology, social media and the Internet, a candidate can get out his or her message with a lot less money.
Even Cavasso’s staunchest opponents would probably agree with one of his parting thoughts on why he keeps running.
Cavasso believes nobody in America should run for public office unopposed. “It is important to run to point out the things that are wrong. Competition is what brings out the truth. Out of competition comes strength.”