- Special Projects
If Hawaii’s Democratic primary for governor was a horse race, Gov. David Ige won on the back of his trusty steed but owes a debt of gratitude to U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa for slowing down her galloping thoroughbred enough for him to catch up.
Ige resurrected his bid for re-election thanks to a strong team, a steady message and, well, Mother Nature. And all that might not have been enough without Hanabusa’s struggle to find a narrative that resonated with voters and her absence early on as she worked 5,000 miles away in Washington, D.C.
The governor turned a 20 percentage point deficit in March polling into a 7 point win on Saturday. In less than five months, Ige went from lost to found.
Colin Moore, a political analyst who directs the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center, said it was a combination of factors largely dealing with Hanabusa’s losing strategy, but that Ige deserves credit for advancing to the Nov. 6 general election.
“It’s not so much what Ige did. It’s what Hanabusa didn’t do,” Moore said. “There was a window for her to really mount a strong campaign and really make a strong case for her candidacy and she missed it.”
But the governor should never have been in as vulnerable a position as he was.
“A Democratic incumbent governor in a Democratic state with the lowest unemployment ever recorded should be an impossible person to beat,” Moore said. “There should be no question that he could win re-election.”
A June 2017 poll by Civil Beat showed more people had a negative opinion of him than positive, and that 57 percent wanted someone else to be governor. Only 20 percent said they wanted him to serve a second term.
The infamous false missile alert in January set Ige further back, which Hanabusa capitalized on early, but it also may have skewed the poll results.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser had Ige losing to Hanabusa 47 percent to 27 percent in mid-March, two months after a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee accidentally sent out a false missile alert warning to thousands of cell phone users. It sent some residents into a panic for 38 minutes before it was officially recalled.
Hanabusa hit Ige with the missile blunder even after new leadership was put in place at the agency.
At that point she was riding high, endorsed by some of Hawaii’s most powerful unions and state lawmakers and its most popular politician, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.
But then her strategy turned to one of running out the clock. She made herself scarce for media interviews. And her policy proposals lacked specifics and substance.
“It was missile alert, missile alert, then nothing, then this grab bag of Democratic talking points which is useless when you’re talking about someone who agrees on virtually all of those issues,” Moore said.
But then came the intense mid-April storms caused severe flood damage on Kauai and parts of Oahu. It was an opportunity to demonstrate leadership — something Hanabusa said Ige wasn’t good at — and the governor seized it.
In Civil Beat’s poll in early May, Ige had pulled to within 6 percentage points.
That’s when the Kilauea eruption came into play. Ige was on the ground on the Big Island, explaining the steps his administration was taking and how he was working with federal and county partners to help hundreds of residents who lost their homes to lava.
“He got lucky politically,” Moore said.
Neal Milner, UH political science professor emeritus, said the two natural disasters gave Ige the chance to be more visible.
“That’s the advantage of incumbency,” Milner said. “For the most part, especially on the Big Island, there seemed to be a lot of positive vibes that came out of that. It was government actually working pretty well.”
The Hawaii State Teachers Association also rallied behind Ige in May. The union’s endorsement was about loyalty, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said. Ige had brought air conditioning to many of the state’s hottest classrooms, addressed a teacher-evaluation system educators disliked and negotiated a new contract with across-the-board raises.
“If someone does good by you, you’ve got to do good by them,” Rosenlee said.
Mail-in ballots started going out two weeks before the election and early walk-in voting also let thousands of voters make their decisions just as a blitz of negative advertising hit the airwaves.
Be Change Now, a super PAC funded by the carpenters union, sank a few million dollars into ads to help Hanabusa. Defend Hawaii Now, a super PAC that joined the effort just days before the election and was fined for its lack of required public disclosures, also rolled out ads that proved ineffective.
Some voters said that, if anything, the negative ads and super PAC involvement against Ige made them ditch their support for Hanabusa.
Style also had something to do with it. Ige’s negative ads were more like suggestions to voters to consider Hanabusa’s past allegiance to developers, while hers were more pointed attacks, political analysts said.
Hanabusa had built her campaign around leadership, focusing much of her messaging on how Ige lacked it and basing the bulk of that assessment on the false missile alert. But the strategy just didn’t work.
“‘Leader’ started becoming a more vacuous and less effective term,” Milner said. “She was not able to demonstrate in any kind of concrete form what she had done as a leader.”
Ige unseated Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2014 by not being Abercrombie, who had soured with voters.
“He had a really open territory when he ran against Neil,” Milner said. “They were ready to vote for him before they even knew him.”
This campaign was different, and his experience as governor became evident.
“Ige is not the world’s best communicator and he’s not the world’s best campaigner by conventional standards,” Milner said. “But he deserves more credit now in knowing his strengths. He campaigned within himself.”
Mike Yadao, Ige’s campaign manager, said Saturday that he is supposed to say that “David Ige is the end-all be-all best thing since sliced bread.” But Yadao said it really came down to putting the people’s interests ahead of corporate interests.
“Nobody is going to tell us that David Ige is not one of us,” Yadao said, also highlighting teachers as the “major backbone” of the campaign.
Ige also repackaged himself as a progressive, which Moore called a “really smart move.” He spoke up more about fighting climate change and making Hawaii sustainable, which helped secure the Sierra Club’s endorsement and support from environmentally minded voters.
Hanabusa, who has lost as many elections as she’s won in the past decade, was conciliatory in her concession late Saturday. Ige said he talked to her on the phone and she congratulated him and told him that she would do whatever she could to help him win in November against Republican state Rep. Andria Tupola.
“It is never easy to take on an incumbent, and we did that,” Hanabusa told her supporters. “You really are taking on government. They have the cabinet and everything in place.”
So ended a campaign that began with Hanabusa seemingly having everything in place.
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
It’s a critical time for our community as we all try to navigate unprecedented disruptions to our daily lives.
We want you to know that our nonprofit newsroom’s team of reporters, editors and support staff are committed to providing you with accurate and in-depth information on Hawaii’s important issues, including developments on how our island state is coping with this global pandemic.
Help ensure that our newsroom remains strong during this period when fact-based, trustworthy information is more important than ever. Please consider supporting Civil Beat by making a tax-deductible gift.