If there are any lessons to be taken from Saturday’s primary election, they are small and incremental.

Hawaii voters showed, once again, they prefer modest course corrections to big lunges to the left or right and appreciate incumbency, particularly when the alternative is unproven, poorly known or just not that impressive.

Voters opted to re-nominate or return to office nearly every incumbent who sought re-election, some by giant margins. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard — along with quasi-incumbent Colleen Hanabusa, seeking her old congressional seat — all breezed to easy primary wins, each by margins of at least 63 percentage points.

Races that were promised to be nailbiters typically didn’t live up to their billing. In state House District 11 on Maui, for instance, former gubernatorial protocol aide Diedre Tegarden’s challenge to Rep. Kaniela Ing ended in a 36-point blowout for Ing. On the Big Island, Sen. Russell Ruderman sailed to an 8-point victory over young challenger Greggor Ilagan.

Kirsty Agbayani (CQ) jubilates as 2nd printout is announced at Mayor Caldwell’s Headquarters. 13 aug 2016
Kirsty Agbayani is jubilant as vote totals are announced Saturday at Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s celebration headquarters. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If the primary wasn’t exactly electrifying, November’s general election for Hawaii races promises to be even less so. The state’s overwhelming Democratic voter advantage virtually assures that few general election races will be very competitive.

Even for perhaps the GOP’s two best hopes in competitive races, November isn’t looking very bright. Sen. Sam Slom, the only Republican in the state Senate, not only faces health issues but a serious challenge from former Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang, who emerged from a three-way Democratic primary with an impressive 66 percent of the vote. If Slom has a spirit animal, it’s surely on the endangered species list.

In the non-partisan Honolulu mayoral race, Republican Charles Djou, who seemed to have big momentum in the final weeks of the race — polls on Civil Beat and in the Star-Advertiser showed him with a 9-point lead less than two weeks ago — finished second to incumbent Mayor Kirk Caldwell. With the other nine candidates now out of the race — including former Mayor Peter Carlisle, who got more than 9 percent of the vote — look for Caldwell, who earned nearly 44 percent despite the crowd, to pick up a second term, maybe without breaking much of a sweat.

Despite all of the above, Saturday did provide a few modest surprises, all of them in the state House of Representatives:

  • Rep. Jo Jordan, who became a national curiosity in 2013 as the only LGBT legislator to vote against a marriage equality law, finally wore out her welcome in District 44. Former Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board Chair Cedric Gates beat Jordan by 11 points and now faces GOP nominee and current Board Chair Marc Paaluhi in the general.
  • Rep. Sam Kong barely survived a challenge from Tracy Arakaki, moving into the lead by 37 votes on the final count.
  • Likewise, Rep. Isaac Choy, who had angered no small number of voters in his Manoa district with his legislative harassment of the University of Hawaii, eked out a 71-vote win against Dale Kobayashi, son of Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi.
  • Rep. Cindy Evans’ 180-vote win on the Big Island seemed almost comfortable by comparison.

The fact that incumbents held on so doggedly by margins small and large is both a testament to their hard work and to the union-dominated establishment that holds sway in Hawaii politics. In his victory speech, Caldwell profusely thanked the 21 unions that had endorsed his candidacy and mobilized volunteer support to bring home the win. Djou, by comparison, had only five union endorsements.

The fact that incumbents held on so doggedly by margins small and large is both a testament to their hard work and to the union-dominated establishment that holds sway in Hawaii politics.

Anyone who questions the significance of those numbers need only refer to the 2014 primary, when Gov. Neil Abercrombie was shown the door by a historic margin after drawing the ire of teachers and nurses unions.

Finally, this political season began with lots of excitement, as the outsider presidential candidacies of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and businessman Donald J. Trump drew in thousands of new Hawaii voters and saw each win their presidential preference poll and caucus, respectively. Sanders, in particular, drubbed Hillary Clinton, 70 percent to 30 percent, electrifying his Hawaii supporters.

Months later, with Sanders having lost the national race, his local supporters were personified by Chelsea Lyons Kent, a Sanders delegate who petulantly flipped a bird at television cameras as Hawaii’s vote totals were read in the nomination roll call at the Democratic National Convention. She defiantly refused to apologize for the spectacle afterward, causing anger among many Hawaii Democrats who didn’t feel the Bern nearly as keenly.

Of five fellow Sanders supporters who sought public office in Saturday’s primary, only one was successful: Jen Ruggles, who was elected to Hawaii County Council’s 5th District with almost 50 percent of the vote. None of the other four came close.

A lone supporter of presidential candidate Donald Trump entertains motorists in Hawaii Kai.
A lone supporter of presidential candidate Donald Trump entertains motorists in Hawaii Kai. Todd Simmons

If Sanders backers didn’t fare very well, there was virtually no sign of Trump supporters on Saturday, save for one tie-clad volunteer, who spent the day at Hawaii Kai intersections, entertaining passersby with some fancy sign spinning and sweet dance moves.

Though incumbency and The Establishment were the weekend’s big winners, there’s ample reason to think that voters weren’t exactly excited about it. Turnout was an abysmal 34.8 percent — less than half what it was 40 years ago.

Cycle after cycle, Hawaii turnout is declining, despite innovations like online registration, voting by mail and declaring permanent absentee status that make it easier than ever to cast a ballot.

Once the celebration of primary wins is over, candidates, political parties, community organizations and the electorate at large must engage on this challenge with new perspective and new ideas. A government put in place by only one-third of registered voters has a pretty thin claim to having been put there “by the people.”

Hawaii voters may like change in relatively modest doses, but the cure for this disease of electoral apathy may take much stronger medicine.

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