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Voters have a way of curtailing the ambitions of even the most talented of politicians.
In the 2006 Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, Mazie Hirono won with a mere 20.7% of the vote, surpassing Colleen Hanabusa by less than 1,000 votes. Matt Matsunaga, Clayton Hee, Gary Hooser, Brian Schatz, Ron Menor and Nestor Garcia finished way behind.
In the 2012 contest for the same race, Tulsi Gabbard stomped Mufi Hannemann by 21 percentage points.
And in 2018 Ed Case entered the race for the 1st Congressional District at virtually the last minute yet won a plurality of the vote, crushing the federal aspirations of Doug Chin, Donna Mercado Kim, Kaniela Ing, Beth Fukumoto and Ernie Martin.
The 2nd District seat is open again, now that Rep. Gabbard has gone all in in her quixotic campaign for the U.S. presidency. Practically everyone who is involved with or follows local politics is in active discussion on who might succeed the representative.
This is my take on the CD2 race, after talking with a bunch of akamai folks, with the caveat that there is still a lot of time for candidates to jump in or out.
Hanging over it all is the enormous morphing blob that is the 2020 presidential campaign and the impeachment of the incumbent.
He’s raised more than a half a million dollars, he’s received a string of endorsements, he’s a military veteran and he had the chutzpah to challenge Gabbard, who was until recently seen as untouchable.
Kai Kahele, a state senator from Hilo, has a big head start in this race. If he comes out on top, he would be only the second Native Hawaiian to serve in Congress since statehood.
But Kahele is not a household name, and he has turned off some Bishop Street types by taking contrarian views on Mauna Kea and East Maui water rights — he has been critical of the state’s management of the mountain and he proposed a legislative solution that upset land owner Alexander & Baldwin and many legislative colleagues.
His cockiness and sometimes disruptive nature is a turnoff to some but an asset in the eyes of others.
Former state Sen. Jill Tokuda of Kaneohe and former Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. are seen as credible challengers to Kahele. Like Kahele, both live in CD2. Unlike Kahele, both have run for statewide office before.
But Tokuda lost to Josh Green in the race for lieutenant governor last year and did not do well among neighbor island voters. Carvalho finished third, demonstrating how difficult it is for some politicians to move beyond their base.
Carvalho is Hawaiian — would he and Kahele compete for Hawaiian votes, hurting both? Yes. Would Tokuda’s gender and Japanese ancestry be a plus? Yes.
The other name that surfaces most is state Rep. Chris Lee. But he has a nice perch as House Judiciary chair and risks giving up his Windward seat.
Another maybe: former Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa. But he failed to win a Maui Council seat last year and may have worn out his political welcome.
It would seem unwise for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell to run for CD2. Although he has Big Island roots, he is actively raising money for a gubernatorial bid in 2022.
One albatross for the mayor is that the neighbor islands are now paying for the unpopular rail project on Oahu. Another is the ongoing federal investigation into rail that has now reached Honolulu Hale.
But Caldwell is smart, ambitious, a strong campaigner, has many friends and knows how to raise cash. One can already picture him in his palaka-print shirt on the campaign trail.
It would also seem unwise for Colleen Hanabusa to enter this race. The former congresswoman has already represented CD1 twice. She failed in knocking off U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Hawaii Gov. David Ige. She’s also actively raising money to succeed Caldwell next year.
But Hanabusa is also smart, ambitious, has many friends and knows how to raise cash. She also has CD2 roots in Waianae.
Other unlikely candidates at this time: The aforementioned Kim, Ing, Fukumoto, Martin, Menor, Green, Hannemann and Hooser. Same goes for Charles Djou, the former congressman and former Republican.
But things could change. Some possible candidates are waiting to see first who gets in, and who does not.
It usually takes about $1 million or more to successfully win a U.S. House race in Hawaii. Raising funds for CD2 may be challenging, especially on Oahu, where there is the high-profile election to replace Caldwell, five of the nine City Council seats and the city prosecutor.
There are likely to be openings in the state Senate that could draw interest. Hawaii County will be looking for a mayor. And the Democratic Party of Hawaii is looking for a chair. A potential CD2 candidate must be thinking of easier races to win or jobs to seek.
Meantime, outside groups including EMILY’s List, VoteVets.org, End Citizens United and Progressive Change Campaign Committee will almost certainly play a role in elevating certain candidates.
One other important factor: candidates who have raised money at the state and county level cannot use that money for federal races.
A candidate for either district need not live in that district. Ed Case has held both offices and thus far has not attracted any challengers for his CD1 re-election.
Patsy Mink held what was previously Hawaii’s single at-large House seat and twice held the 2nd District seat. Mink was from Maui but later lived on Oahu. Case spent his early years on the Big Island but also resides today on Oahu.
While the two districts may seem at times interchangeable, there are distinct differences. Many on the neighbor islands have long resented Oahu centrism, and I wonder if a candidate who lives on Hawaii island, Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Kauai or outside of urban Honolulu might not have an edge in 2020.
Might there also be a fresh face that will emerge from the activism that has been so prominent in the 2nd District — from the pesticide and GMO confrontations of recent years to the development battles now on Mauna Kea and in Kahuku and Waimanalo?
Put another way, will a progressive candidate have more appeal than one from the status quo? Think Elizabeth Warren versus Joe Biden at the presidential level, or U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders.
One lawmaker I spoke with raised a question about the CD2 race that is worth considering: Who on Earth would want to be stuck in Crazytown, D.C., with 434 other representatives?
Nationally, dozens of Republicans in the U.S. House have already decided not to run for re-election.
The only possible GOP candidate for CD2 that I’ve heard about is attorney Samuel Wilder King II, who lost a bid for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 2018 and is currently heading a pro-Thirty Meter Telescope hui.
In spite of the turmoil in Washington, a seat in Congress will always hold allure for Hawaii pols. There are several potential candidates not listed here that could very well enter the CD2 race. There is also one other Democratic candidate you’ve probably not heard of — David Cornejo, a Kailua resident who works remotely for a networking software company in Austin, Texas.
Finally, while they may not say it publicly, many political insiders, pundits and observers will confirm privately that the CD2 seat is the likely stepping stone for the Senate seat held by Hirono, once she leaves office. Schatz is widely expected to hold on to his seat for some time.
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