Super PACs spent millions to try to influence Hawaii’s primary this year, and that worries Gov. David Ige.

The governor bristled at a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that enabled the political action committees to continue operating despite some state attempts to clamp down on their influence.

“The whole notion that companies and people can make unlimited contributions to these super PACs just distorts the whole campaign environment,” Ige said Tuesday during a wide ranging interview with the Civil Beat Editorial Board.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige criticized a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that enabled super PACs to keep operating despite some state attempts to clamp down on their influence. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

The ruling has allowed special interests to pour millions of dollars into campaigns every election since the ruling.

In Hawaii, super PACs, known as independent expenditure committees, are allowed to accept an unlimited number of donations and spend as much as they please either supporting or opposing candidates.

A super PAC backed by the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters and its partners, Be Change Now, pumped more than $3 million this year into the primary race for lieutenant governor, a portion of which went to attacking state Rep. Sylvia Luke, who won the Democratic nomination on Saturday.

Similarly, former state Sen. Jill Tokuda faced attack ads from mainland groups that attacked Tokuda’s record on guns. Tokuda also won the Democratic nomination for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.

Ige, who is barred by term limits from running for a third term, worked with both Luke and Tokuda when he was a state legislator as well as governor.

The fact that Tokuda and Luke won their primary races and will advance to the Nov. 8 general election anyway has prompted critics to say the attack ads backfired.

“A lot of the attack ads might have had a sliver of truth to the attack, but most of it was really totally distorted and groundless. I do think to some extent that’s why they were not effective,” Ige said.

The governor expressed concern over the state’s low voter turnout this year compared to a spike seen in 2020. In 2020, more than 407,000 people voted in the primary election compared to just 338,000 this year. Although 2020 was a presidential election year and this year is a mid-term, which typically sees lower turnout.

In particular, Ige speculated that negative campaigning may have turned voters away from casting ballots.

“I’m concerned with that trend,” Ige said. “I do think it had an impact.”

Ige was also the subject of attack ads from Be Change Now, the super PAC backed by the Pacific Resource Partnership. In 2018, the PAC backed Ige’s opponent Colleen Hanabusa, and ran ads reminding voters of the time Ige forgot his Twitter password during the false missile alert crisis in early 2018.

PRP, a partnership between the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters and more than 200 local contractors and its supporters, typically back pro-rail candidates and others involved in the construction industry.

Ige said he never had PRP’s support and declined to speculate on what, if any, political motivations other than the rail project may cause PRP and its related PACs to support the candidates.

Be Change Now previously has said that it backs candidates with “strong records of supporting working families” and opposes those who don’t.

Although the super PAC’s advertising efforts may not have paid off in the LG’s race, eight other candidates it supports did win their primary elections including gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Josh Green, House Speaker Scott Saiki and a slate of county council candidates.

Although Ige and other policymakers may not like the presence of super PACs in Hawaii elections, elected officials have few options for dealing with them. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC protects political donations made by private entities.

Ige said lawmakers in Hawaii have taken steps to force super PACs to provide more disclosure, including identifying their sources of funding and largest donors. But the governor acknowledged it would be difficult to pass laws challenging the court ruling.

“It’s hard,” Ige said. “The things we can do in the context of Citizens United is pretty limited.”

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