Hundreds of political candidates have filed to run for federal, state and local offices. Hawaii’s election season kicked off Tuesday as the deadline to file paperwork passed.

As always, most of the 64 legislative races up for election this year have incumbent Democrats seeking reelection along with a number of other candidates who are running as Democrats, too.

But a new political party has emerged this year and is hoping to wrest some of the power away from the long-entrenched Democrats.

The Aloha Aina Party has candidates running in 15 races in the Legislature.

The Republican Party has fielded 50 candidates this year and the Libertarians three. The American Shopping Party also has two candidates running for legislative seats.

All told, 330 candidates filed for 105 elective offices that will be on the ballot this year, including both of Hawaii’s congressional seats and races for county mayors, prosecutors, council members and the board of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

All 51 House seats and half the Senate will be on the ballot this election.

Top Race In The Legislature

Worries over the coronavirus has clouded campaigning and given incumbents with their greater name recognition an advantage.

Incumbents also tend to have the money advantage with cash leftover in their campaign accounts from previous races.

Voters will be entering this election season still worrying about their livelihoods along with the future of the state. The stress could mean residents are less apt to research new candidates.

The virus is “sucking the dialogue oxygen out of the political bubble here,” says Jim Shon, a former state representative.

Thirteen seats are on the ballot for the Senate while all 51 seats in the House are up. Two Senate seats will be open along with five House seats.

One of the top races that will be watched closely by politicos is in House District 26 — Kakaako, McCully, Kaheka and downtown Honolulu — where incumbent House Speaker Scott Saiki is facing what’s expected to be a strong challenge from Kim Coco Iwamoto.

Iwamoto is a community activist who two years ago lost her bid for lieutenant governor. Saiki has held on to his seat since being elected in 1994, and since becoming House Speaker in 2017, he has built up a strong coalition in the House.

Iwamoto has said she will aggressively canvass the area. Last election, about a third of registered voters in District 26 never cast ballots. And one of the state’s largest private worker’s unions, the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union, recently endorsed Iwamoto.

A Saiki loss would mean at least a temporary reorganization of House leadership going into the 2021 session, which could also mean a shift in policy priorities and the budget.

House Reps Run For Senate

Other races to pay attention to include those five House vacancies, as well as the seat left open with the departure of the House Judiciary Committee chair, Chris Lee, who is trying to move up to the Senate.

In District 20, which covers Palolo, Rep. Calvin Say is leaving the House after nearly four decades in office to run for Honolulu City Council. At least five candidates, all relatively new to politics, have filed papers to run.

There are also two open seats on Oahu’s Windward side — Lee’s seat and that of Rep. Cynthia Thielen who is retiring after 30 years in the Legislature. Together those districts cover a large swath of Oahu including Waimanalo, Kailua and parts of Kaneohe.

Rep Chris Lee during Pot Bill discussions during floor session.
Rep. Chris Lee, right, is running for an empty Senate seat. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lee is making a run for the Senate representing District 25, currently held by Sen. Laura Thielen, who announced she will not seek re-election.

The House Judiciary Committee’s current vice chair, Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, is also leaving the House to mount a bid for the Big Island Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Russell Ruderman, who is not seeking reelection. 

Lee and San Buenaventura have the name recognition in their respective districts, and that will be important for almost any race this year. 

But whoever gets those seats will enter a Senate that has become increasingly divided. And where they align themselves could either help Senate President Ron Kouchi’s coalition, or chip away at it.

Republicans And A New Party

What’s not currently divided in the Senate is the minority caucus. There’s only one member — Sen. Kurt Fevella.

Rep. Rida Cabanilla is not seeking reelection to her House seat and plans to run against Fevella for the Senate. Two other Democrats also are in the primary for that Senate seat.

Former Rep. Matt LoPresti is looking to win back his old House seat. He gave it up for an unsuccessful run for the Senate two years ago.

Republicans are mounting a challenge to five seats in the Senate and 24 in the House. They’ve lost ground in the last few elections, and could be down one more after this election with Cynthia Thielen retiring.

Former Sen. Sam Slom is again running to represent Hawaii Kai. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Former Sen. Sam Slom is challenging Sen. Stanley Chang, a Democrat. Like Fevella, Slom spent years as the Senate’s one-man opposition party, drafting alternative financial plans and challenging the Democrats.

But the new Aloha Aina Party promises to be a political development to keep an eye on. 

Party chair Donald Kaulia said he had hoped to field candidates in every race for its debut, but he said he’s happy with the candidates the party has lined up. 

Kaulia said he hopes the candidates, if they are elected, will help mend the rocky relationship between Gov. David Ige, who has two more years in office, and the Legislature. Tensions have been high between the administration and lawmakers, especially since the pandemic hit.

Politically, Kaulia said the Aloha Aina Party platform revolves around bringing Native Hawaiian values into government.

Kaulia says he’s also tired of lawmakers kicking the can down the road and blaming each other.

“No more cry baby stuff: ‘Democrats this, Republican that,’” he said. “Just get out there and do it.”

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