WASHINGTON — Hawaii congressional candidate Beth Fukumoto, a state representative who gained fame when she switched parties last year, has spent the past several days in Washington, D.C., in an effort to boost her image and pump more cash into her campaign coffers.

Fukumoto recently entered the race for Hawaii’s first congressional district, which covers urban Oahu. 

A former Republican, she made national headlines in 2017 when she abandoned her party to become a Democrat after criticizing President Donald Trump’s treatment of women and perceived bigotry of minorities.

Fukumoto is now trying to capitalize on that momentum in Washington by hosting fundraisers and meeting with national political strategists in an attempt to gain an edge in the crowded 2018 primary.

House Senate conference committee on Health Rep Beth Fukumoto Chang. 29 april 2016.
Beth Fukumoto is spending eight days in Washington D.C., seeking money and advice from both Republicans who don’t support President Trump and progressive Democrats. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The big thing for me is getting around to all the various people that usually get involved in congressional campaigns to see if they’re planning on playing in the Hawaii primary,” Fukumoto said in an interview.

“If they are planning to get involved I want to make sure that they know who I am, that they understand my campaign and that they know I can win.”

Among the groups she’s hoping to woo are EMILY’s List, which seeks to elect pro-choice, Democratic women to Congress, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization that describes itself as the Elizabeth Warren-wing of American politics.

Handicapping Fukumoto’s chances is difficult.

She entered the race on March 29, three days after the only publicly available poll came out, so it’s hard to predict Fukumoto’s chances. That poll, conducted by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, showed the race shaping up largely as a battle  between state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim and Lt. Gov. Doug Chin. Kim received 32 percent support from those polled, while Chin received 29 percent.

Honolulu City Councilman Ernie Martin received 6 percent support, while state Rep. Kaniela Ing received 2 percent, respectively. About 31 percent of those polled said they were undecided.

Fukumoto also hasn’t yet filed any campaign spending reports with the Federal Election Commission, so it’s difficult to measure her fundraising prowess.

She acknowledges lagging behind her competitors, especially Kim, Chin and Martin. Those candidates reported having hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash on hand to buy ads, pay staff and send out direct messaging to voters.

Fukumoto said she hasn’t had much luck landing big donors who sometimes contribute thousands of dollars to individual candidates. Instead, she’s relied mostly on small donations from Hawaii.

Traveling to Washington was, in part, a necessity to find new sources of income.

“I’m new and my network has not been built over 50 years of service,” Fukumoto said. 

“I have to reach out to other people,” she said. “The establishment in Hawaii is so strong that if you’re not their chosen candidate it’s really difficult to get money, so you have to prospect.”

The lack of money puts Fukumoto at a disadvantage. But she still sees a pathway to victory in a crowded field.

The magic number she says is 37,000. That’s how many votes she thinks it will take to secure the party’s nomination in what she expects to be a three-way race, given how far Martin and Ing lagged behind in the polls.

In 2014, the last time there was a competitive primary for Hawaii’s First Congressional District, then-state Rep. Mark Takai won the Democratic nomination with 52,736 votes to Kim’s 33,678. Takai, who died in 2016, would go on to beat Republican Charles Djou in the general election with 51 percent of the overall vote.

Where does Fukumoto expect to pick up those votes? She says she’ll look to her home district of Mililani as well as to right-of-center Republicans and angry progressives who are fed up with the current state of the Democratic Party.

Fukumoto has met voters on both sides of the partisan divide, both at home and in Washington, where she says her message seems to resonate particularly well with those on the right who feel abandoned by their own party in a time of Trump.

That was clear Friday during a small fundraiser held for Fukumoto in downtown Washington. One of the hosts was Ron Steslow, of Tusk Digital, a small political consulting firm that mainly works for Republican candidates and was involved in the so-called “Never Trump” movement.

He told the attendees that he first heard Fukumoto’s story about leaving the Republican Party while listening to a podcast, and that her experience resonated with him so much that he wanted to help her win a seat in Congress.

Still, Fukumoto faces other challenges luring progressives.

She will contend with questions about her past, such as her vote against same-sex marriage. And Ing has already picked up an endorsement from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, one of the groups Fukumoto hopes to court.

“I think I can appeal to a lot of different voters,” Fukumoto said. “Some are disgruntled Republicans who don’t have a home anymore, and some are very progressive Democrats who really hate the establishment and want to see that change.

“And I think more people should spend time recognizing the commonality between those two groups,” she added. “Because a lot of people just want something different.”

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