A major storyline of the 2018 mid-term primaries nationally has been how insurgent Democrats fared against entrenched incumbents.

The victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist who unseated U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York, spurred a drumbeat of media coverage about how so-called Berniecrats — those who hold many of the same ideals as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders — are reshaping the Democratic Party.

But for progressive insurgents in Hawaii, where the Democratic Party establishment retains vice-grip control, the results were mixed. Political experts say voters appear to be as unenthusiastic about progressive issues as they are about most political issues in Hawaii.

State Rep. Kaniela Ing failed to garner needed support in his congressional race despite having the backing of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

One of the most visible campaigns was in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, where state Rep. Kaniela Ing was able to garner a lot of national attention for his views on issues such as housing for all, eliminating college debt and swearing off corporate campaign donations.

Ing was backed by Ocasio-Cortez, who traveled to the islands to stump for him. But it didn’t seem to matter.

He only earned 6.1 percent of the vote — enough for fourth place — whereas Ed Case, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat with a penchant for working with Republicans, won with 38.7 percent.

Gary Hooser, who’s the vice chairman of the state Democratic Party, said that while Ing’s message didn’t gain much traction with voters, it pushed some opponents in the crowded primary field to espouse more progressive views.

“It seemed like they were all stepping to the left,” Hooser, a former state senator and Kauai County councilman, said. “Even when they were attacking each other in the debates it was for not being left enough.”

Hooser is president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action and the executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative, a group that aggressively supports new candidates who champion social, economic and environmental justice.

The initiative endorsed 14 Democratic candidates for seats in the Legislature, six in the Senate and eight in the House.

Five won their respective primaries, including House candidates Amy Perruso and Tina Wildberger, both of whom are graduates of HAPA’s Kuleana Academy, a training program that teaches community activists and politicians to be more effective leaders and better candidates.

Perruso beat state Rep. Lea Learmont, who was appointed in December to fill a vacancy, while Wildberger won an open seat on Maui that was vacated by Ing. 

“Republicans would be doing backflips if they picked up two seats in the House,” Hooser said.

In the Senate, Hooser pointed to the primary victories of Sharon Moriwaki, Matt LoPresti and Jarrett Keohokalole, all of whom were endorsed by the Pono Hawaii Initiative.

Moriwaki, a first-time candidate, beat 10-year incumbent Sen. Brickwood Galuteria. LoPresti and Keohokalole are both House members attempting to move to the Senate.

“We had a lot of qualified progressive candidates running good races,” Hooser said, adding that some who lost are already planning to run again in 2020.

Gary Hooser. editorial Board. 2 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Gary Hooser heads a political training program for progressive candidates. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Among those who lost close races this are Ernesto “Sonny” Ganaden, who was defeated by state Rep. Romy Cachola and 51 votes and Terez Amato, who lost to state Sen. Roz Baker by 106 votes.

Hawaii is a blue state that has the opportunity to lead the country on topics, such as implementing a $15 minimum wage, paid family medical leave, single-payer healthcare, better regulation of pesticides and caps on interest rates for payday loans.

The state used to be known for its progressivism — it passed the Hawaii Prepaid Healthcare Act in 1974, for instance — but over the years has leaned more moderate to conservative.

This year was a notable exception when legislators passed bills related to medical aid in dying and banning certain chemicals used in coral-killing sunscreens and certain pesticides.

“Hawaii shouldn’t be the 20th state passing of these things we should be the first, second or third,” Hooser said. “We should have legalized responsible recreational use of cannabis a long time ago.”

But such ideological messaging hasn’t always resonated with voters in the islands.

A Progressive Fizzle?

Neal Milner is a former University of Hawaii political science professor. In Hawaii, he said many of the ideological battles play out behind the scenes rather than in the ballot box.

In 2016, party insiders butted heads over who they should support for president — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who held more socialist views on education and healthcare.

A majority of the state’s superdelegates went for Clinton despite Sanders winning big in the state’s presidential preference poll.

The backlash played out at the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s convention in May 2016 when Tim Vandeveer, a vociferous Sanders supporter, was voted in as chairman. It was seen as a big win for the progressive wing of the party, but it didn’t necessarily pay dividends during the primary.

While there were more contested primary races in 2016 than in 2014, most of the candidates affiliated with the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action lost.

Vandeveer is also no longer party chairman. He was replaced as chair at this year’s state convention by Kealii Lopez, a registered lobbyist with stronger ties to the traditional Democratic establishment, which includes labor and business.

“There certainly have been struggles over the years between progressives and moderates, but they don’t usually go past the party conventions,” Milner said. “The Democratic Party is used to dealing with these issues in-house.”

When looking at the 2018 primary, Milner said he didn’t see a lot of ideological battles between progressives and moderates within the party with the exception of the 1st Congressional District.

“Few people used the ‘P’ word very much,” Milner said. “Unlike in other states, the progressive presence was much less notable and the conflicts within the party between progressives and moderates did not play any kind of obvious role.

“It’s certainly going to be a battle in the presidential race among Democrats,” he added. “But it was pretty much muted to non-existent here.”

Oahu residents cast their ballot for the primary election at Central Middle School, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, in Honolulu.
Voter turnout is consistently low in Hawaii, especially during primaries. Eugene Tanner/Civil Beat

Also missing is the level of enthusiasm found in other parts of the country that then turns into turnout. Hawaii often has historically bad turnout, and this year’s primary was no exception with only about 39 percent of registered voters casting ballots.

Ngoc Phan is an assistant professor of political science at Hawaii Pacific University. She said that because Hawaii is a Democratic-majority state with little competition from Republicans, it can be easy for voters to stay disengaged.

“The Democratic Party has its well-oiled machine and Democratic voters who don’t normally vote in primary elections don’t feel the need to come out and say, ‘We need to move the party,’” Phan said. “Democratic voters might be more complicit when it comes to pushing the party toward the left.”

She said there doesn’t seem to be the same sense of urgency in Hawaii as there are in other parts of the country where President Donald Trump and the Republican Party pose legitimate threats to Democratic seats of power.

Turnout is generally low and there haven’t been many candidates who generated huge levels of voter excitement by challenging an incumbent in the same party.

“Our districts aren’t really up for grabs,” Phan said. “So it doesn’t really compel Democratic supporters to go out and do something.”

Tim Zhu saw some of that apathy first hand.

Zhu is a co-founder of the Honolulu chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which endorsed Ing and four other candidates, including Perruso. Perruso was the only DSA-backed candidate who won in Hawaii’s primary.

He said there also seems to be enthusiasm for DSA’s message, especially in a place like Hawaii where affordable housing is scarce, the cost of living is high and major interest groups, including business and labor, still hold major sway at the Legislature.

Still, he admitted it was hard to engage younger voters, even those who came out for Sanders in 2016, during this year’s primary.

“I think we have a lot of work to do to continue growing enthusiasm in these local races,” Zhu said.

“We need to continue to talk to these people who feel disenfranchised. I think there’s a deep dissatisfaction with the current system, which can lead to apathy and hopelessness. But I think we can change that.”

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