WASHINGTON — Kai Kahele’s lips are sealed.

The state senator is running as a Democrat for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which became an open seat after U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard decided to forgo reelection to focus on her unsuccessful bid for the White House.

But between now and Hawaii’s primary Aug. 8, you likely won’t see Kahele sign-waving along busy highways, hitting his talking points during live televised debates or even participating in media interviews to discuss his reasons for running.

That’s because he’s forbidden from doing so by a U.S. Department of Defense directive, according to his campaign.

Senator Kai Kahele during Hawaiian Affairs DHHL Aila meeting2.
State Sen. Kai Kahele can work at the Legislature while on active duty with the Hawaii Air National Guard, but he is prohibited from campaigning for Congress. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

There’s also a question of whether he’d even need to put in the effort given the surprisingly meager list of alternative candidates vying to represent rural Oahu and the neighbor islands in Washington. 

While Kahele is one of four candidates seeking the party’s nomination, he’s by far the best known in the field. His top Democratic challenger is perhaps Brian Evans, a former Las Vegas crooner and perennial also-ran in Hawaii politics who two years ago faced off against Gabbard as a Republican.

“I don’t know why there’s no serious opposition to him running for an open seat.” — Neal Milner, political analyst

“It’s a little bizarre running a campaign when the candidate is not there,” said Alan Tang, a spokesman for Kahele’s campaign. “But I think you can see the circumstance is that he doesn’t have a high profile opponent. So is he needed? That depends on the perspective that you’re looking at.”

Kahele is a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard and is on federal active duty to help the state respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a voluntary assignment, one he signed up for in April, but it comes with strict rules when it comes to his campaign.

As a result, Tang said Kahele has completely walled himself off from his congressional bid, which means he’s not participating in fundraisers, calling prospective voters or filling out his own candidate questionnaires.

‘It’s The Golden Ticket’

Kahele can afford to turn his back on electoral politics in part because the field for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District is thin on talent.

The fact that he was the only well-known candidate to enter the race is dumbfounding to many long-time observers of Hawaii politics.

While it took some amount of political courage for Kahele to be the first to challenge Gabbard after she launched her presidential campaign in January 2019, many expected a rush of new candidates when she announced in October that she would not be seeking reelection to Congress. That expected crowd never materialized.

“I don’t know why there’s no serious opposition to him running for an open seat,” said Neal Milner, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, who also writes a regular column for Civil Beat.

“If you’re a person who wants to be in Congress, this is going to be the best opportunity you’re going to have for a long, long time. Whoever wins this year — assuming they run again — will be the incumbent and running against an incumbent is much more challenging and less likely to be successful than running for an open seat.”

Ngoc Phan is an assistant professor who specializes in American politics at Hawaii Pacific University. 

One must only look to the 2014 and 2018 elections for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District to get a sense of how odd it is that Kahele stands alone in the 2020 Democratic primary.

In 2014, seven challengers sought to fill a seat left vacant by then-U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa when she decided to run for U.S. Senate against Brian Schatz. Among them were several state legislators and key members of the Honolulu City Council, including Mark Takai, Donna Mercado Kim, Will Espero, Ikaika Anderson, Joey Manahan and Stanley Chang.

A similar group jumped into the race in 2018 when Hanabusa again left Washington to run for governor. The field then included a number of well-established Democratic politicians and government officials, such as Ed Case, the former congressman and eventual winner of the race, former Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin and former Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin.

Other candidates included Kim and former state Reps. Kaniela Ing and Beth Fukumoto, both of whom had developed national profiles, Ing as a voice in the Democratic socialist movement and Fukumoto as a former Republican who had abandoned her party after the rise of Donald Trump.

Ngoc Phan, an assistant professor specializing in American politics at Hawaii Pacific University, said Kahele’s path to Congress is as easy as it gets given that no other Democrats in the field have reported raising any money and that Republicans are all but irrelevant in a state that historically leans hard to the left.

“I don’t know why this seat is not getting the respect it deserves with a lot of challengers,” Phan said. “This seat historically pushes people into higher levels of office. It’s what you want on your resume. It’s the golden ticket.”

Of the five people who have represented Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District — Patsy Mink, Daniel Akaka, Ed Case, Mazie Hirono and Tulsi Gabbard — two have moved on to the U.S. Senate. Phan said Kahele probably staved off some challengers by securing key endorsements early on in the race, including from former Govs. John Waihee, Ben Cayetano and Neil Abercrombie.

“People aren’t going to click on your ad when they’re literally trying to figure out what just happened yesterday on the continent.” — Ngoc Phan, HPU assistant professor

Federal Election Commission records show that Kahele’s campaign brought in more than $800,000 in donations before the ongoing coronavirus pandemic put a stop to most of his fundraising efforts. Phan said the effect of COVID-19 on the race can’t be understated, and might have even left some people on the sidelines.

“COVID means that you have to have the capital upfront to pay for the Facebook ads and the Google ads and the airways,” Phan said.

“There’s no way that a relatively unknown challenger can just swoop in with charisma because you’re going to have to pay for the attention of the community,” she said. “And right now people are just being bombarded with ads and other content that are rolling in and competing with other key moments in American politics. People aren’t going to click on your ad when they’re literally trying to figure out what just happened yesterday on the continent.”

With Kahele continuing to serve in the National Guard, Tang said he and other surrogates, including campaign manager Trisha Kehaulani Watson, will continue to run the campaign in his stead. Tang is aware of the criticisms that followed Tulsi Gabbard over the years as she took her status as frontrunner for granted, including in 2018 after she was repeatedly criticized for dodging debates against lesser known opponents.

If circumstances change, Tang said, and Kahele’s race does tighten up or there are growing calls for his participation in candidate forums and debates, he said he’s sure Kahele would reconsider his status on active duty.

But for now, Tang said, Kahele is serving his state the best way he knows how, not as a candidate, but as a legislator and a member of the National Guard trying to get a handle on a global pandemic that has been both dangerous to island residents and their economy.

“I can’t say why people didn’t jump in,” Tang said, “but I can say the campaign worked very hard to make sure that he’s a very viable candidate.”

Jeffrey Hickman, a spokesman for the Hawaii National Guard, said in an email that Kahele received permission from state Brigadier General Moses Kaoiwi to participate in his legislative duties, but not his campaign.

An exemption for campaign activities “could not be written at this level,” Hickman said. “It is a DoD policy, he would have to go higher.”

Tang said there are circumstances under which Kahele could request to be pulled from active duty, such as family emergencies. He could also request leave if he felt he needed to focus more on his campaign, although at this point his victory in the primary does not seem to be in jeopardy.

That wasn’t always the case. Before the June filing deadline, Kahele’s campaign was preparing for the possibility of Gabbard announcing she would in fact run for reelection. Tang said had that occurred, Kahele could have requested to step away from his guard duties to “aggressively campaign.” 

Editor’s note: Because of her position as campaign manager for the Kahele campaign, Trisha Kehaulani Watson is no longer a Civil Beat columnist.

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