I was surprised recently when political analyst Dan Boylan said in a TV interview that Ed Case has an advantage by being the only haole in Hawaii’s crowded 1st Congressional District race — the urban Oahu district.

Case and six other Democrats are vying for the seat Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is leaving to run for governor. Case held Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District seat from 2002 through 2006, when he left to run for the Senate and lost.

To someone who has grown up in Hawaii and has reported on politics for decades, it seemed strange to me to point out Case’s haole-ness as a game changer. The congressional race includes candidates of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian and Samoan ancestry.

It brings up the bigger question: How important is race in Hawaii politics today?

Ed Case for Congress with his wife Audrey wave to passing motorists along Kalanianiole Hightway.

Ed Case and his wife, Audrey, wave to passing motorists along Kalanianiole Highway this month.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Political analysts here rarely give any attention to the white vote or speculate that being a haole might help put a candidate over the top. Instead, they tend to emphasize the Japanese-American vote, the Filipino-American vote or they wonder about where the Hawaiian vote will go.

On the mainland, white is a default identity. Caucasians seldom talk about their whiteness unless they are white nationalists or part of the alt-right. The mainland haoles, like many haoles in Hawaii, seem more comfortable identifying themselves by their shared cultural heritage, such as Irish, Jewish or Italian.

What’s clearly different in Hawaii, though, is that nonwhites routinely describe Caucasian as a distinct race. For example, at the most dramatic, there is the never-proven but much-discussed public school event known as  “kill haole day.” Or the occasional under-the-breath muttering of “damn haoles” or “haole, that’s why,” by non-Caucasians in reaction to behavior thought to be typical of whites.

The consideration of whites as a distinct racial group in Hawaii goes back to the days of the early European explorers arriving when the islands were ruled by Polynesians. In the 19th century and going forward, the haole racial categorization took on an enduring hold when the white Republican oligarchy of the plantation era tightly controlled the political and social life of the islands until the mid 1950s.

Today, politicians in Hawaii never run around saying “vote for me, I’m a haole,” or even allude to their Caucasian heritage. There is no hiding whiteness, but some candidates seek to broaden their appeal by making it evident that their spouse is not Caucasian.

Voters wait to cast their ballots at Manoa Elementary School in November 2014.

Brian Tseng/Civil Beat

Ed Case sign-waves with his Japanese-American wife, Audrey. When Brian Schatz made his successful bid for U.S. Senate, one of his most charming commercials featured his Chinese-American daughter learning how to make dumplings from her Chinese-American grandfather. Lieutenant governor candidate Josh Green’s recent commercial portrays him and his multi-ethnic family eating dinner with chopsticks.

Apparently I am not the only one pondering Boylan’s comment about Case’s haole advantage in the congressional race. I ran into Boylan at a party Thursday where he told me that after his TV comments, his biracial son, Peter, ended up having to defend him from critics who were calling him a racist.

Case says he was surprised by Boylan’s analysis.

“It frankly disturbed me. It was such a raw statement. It made me uncomfortable at best and at worst, offended,” said Case.

He added, “I don’t go around talking about my ethnicity. I have lived too long in diverse Hawaii to do that. I hope that ethnicity is never a reason to vote for or against any candidate.”

But Case says ethnicity does have a place in helping a candidate establish an initial connection with a prospective voter.

“At the end of the day, voters want to feel comfortable, to know the candidate is someone who understands them,” he said. “The voter wants to feel an initial bond deeper than issue agreement, a similarity, an emotional bonding. We all are conscious of our ethnicity, but I have never believed it to be a finishing point for a voter, just a starting point.”

Case acknowledges that some Hawaii voters still select their candidates solely by race, but he says as time goes on there is less purely ethnic voting.

Dan Boylan, left, discussed politics and ethnicity with Civil Beat’s Chad Blair for a podcast in 2016.

Boylan says he stands by what he said on TV. He sees Case as the front-runner when you take into account he is better known than the other candidates: Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, state Reps. Beth Fukumoto and Kaniela Ing, state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim,  Honolulu City Council chairman Ernie Martin, and retired U.S. Immigration Service special agent Sam Puletasi. Boylan says Case’s opponents with their many different ethnicities will split the nonwhite vote.

Boylan says another factor that will help Case is that neither of two Republicans running for the congressional seat, Cam Cavasso and Raymond Vinole, ever manages to win against a Democrat in the general election. He says Republicans who want their vote to matter will vote in the Democratic primary and will be inclined to support Case because he is a moderate “Blue Dog” Democrat. And because, like many of them, Case is a haole.

“A lot of the voters are not thinking deeply about the issues,” Boylan said. “They are thinking: Whom do I feel good about; who do I like? Haoles will pick Case because they feel comfortable with him. I would like to think we never vote that way in a multiethnic society, but we always do. Japanese support Japanese; haoles support haoles, Chinese support Chinese.”

But woe to any candidate who makes a blatant racial appeal to voters, he says.

Boylan is a retired history professor at University of Hawaii West Oahu and writes a column for MidWeek.

University of Hawaii political science professor Colin Moore, who appeared in the same TV report in which Boylan made his remark, agrees that Case is the front-runner.

Moore says when you account for everything else such as Case’s high name recognition, his reputation as an arduous campaigner and the fact that he has already held a congressional seat, “being the only white candidate cannot hurt him.”

There have been no academic studies to measure empirically how much race matters in Hawaii’s elections, he says.

But it’s hard to find a political observer in the islands who doesn’t agree with longtime political consultant Keith Rollman, who puts it this way: “In a perfect world race would not matter, but it still does.”

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