Lt. Gov. Josh Green absolutely dominated Saturday’s Democratic primary. With most of the vote counted Saturday night, early election returns showed him easily beating back challenges from U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele and Hawaii businesswoman Vicky Cayetano.

The first two vote tallies of the evening — which included all the mail-in ballots received by the counting center by Friday — showed Green with a commanding lead of nearly 62%. Cayetano, who poured millions of dollars of her own money into her first bid for public office, was in second place with about 21%, while Kahele trailed with 13%.

The experience of the 2020 election suggests that first printout alone likely includes about 90% of the total votes cast, meaning the final results were unlikely to be dramatically different from those first returns.

A crowd of about 250 Green supporters gathered around televisions at the Grove restaurant at The Modern hotel in Waikiki, and erupted with applause as the first round of results were announced. Many wore shirts with simple wording “Green/Governor.”

Green waded through the crowd to reach the stage shortly after 8:30 p.m., pumped both fists into the air, and stood on a stage flanked by his wife Jaime and his two children. He thanked a long list of supporters, adding that, “If I forget a single name, I will get you in the fall, I will tell you that.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Rep. Sylvia Luke share the stage after taking sizable leads in the Democratic primary races for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, Saturday. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

“Hawaii had the best response in the darkest time we ever saw,” Green said of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. “I do believe that’s what propelled us to this moment.”

He closed his brief speech promising to win the governor’s race in November, and the crowd responded by chanting “Green! Gov!” as the song “Celebration” played.

Green will face Republican former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona in the general election on Nov. 8.

Early vote counting on Saturday showed Aiona, who is making his third run for governor, was dominating his own primary contest that included retired MMA fighter BJ Penn, Honolulu City Council member Heidi Tsuneyoshi and Oahu contractor and activist Gary Cordery.

Aiona had nearly 48% of the Republican primary vote in the early returns, while Penn had 22%, Cordery had 9.5%, and Tsuneyoshi had 8.6%.

A Lively Election Season

The term-limited Gov. David Ige must step down in December, and the Democratic primary for the top office of governor was one of the most closely watched races of the evening. The Democratic Party controls the vast majority of elected offices statewide, and Aiona faces an uphill fight against Green in the months ahead.

Green has been planning this moment for years, and was able to harness his fundraising prowess and his high-profile role as a physician in state government during the pandemic to gain a large lead early in the race. Even his two most formidable Democratic rivals never came close to catching up.

The sometimes harsh campaign featured several attempts by Kahele and Cayetano to simultaneously fire criticisms at Green in obvious attempts cut his lead down to size.

Kahele in particular questioned Green’s willingness to raise very large sums of money from private and out-of-state donors, and both Cayetano and Kahele called on Green to disclose more information about his outside earnings during his time as lieutenant governor.

Kahele, who is serving his first term in Congress, officially announced his bid for governor quite late in the campaign season. He then attempted to jump start his run with a pitch for dramatic reforms in Hawaii’s campaign finance system, including expanded public financing of campaigns. His core campaign theme was “Hawaii is not for sale.”

But critics quickly pointed out Kahele himself was happy to accept large private donations during his previous campaigns for public office, and Kahele’s plan to rely largely on public funding this year was undermined by an error that prevented him from drawing down more than $208,000 in public funds.

Cayetano, a successful local businesswoman and the wife of former Gov. Ben Cayetano, billed herself as a “doer” running against opponents who represent the status quo.

She pledged to provide a brand of smart new leadership that would finally allow Hawaii to work through longstanding problems such as the local housing shortage and teacher retention. But she found herself unable to raise money in a local political landscape where so many potential donors had already committed to Green.

Cayetano mostly self-funded her campaign in order to remain competitive, and by late July she had spent more than $3 million on the election. That was more than any other candidate, including Green.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vicky Cayetano arrives at her campaign headquarters with her husband, former Gov. Ben Cayetano, Saturday, in Honolulu
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vicky Cayetano arrives at her election night party at TJ’s Sports Bar and Grill with her husband, former Gov. Ben Cayetano, Saturday, in Honolulu. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2022

Cheerful Hawaiian music and a hula dancer couldn’t brighten the subdued mood at TJ’s Sports Bar on Honolulu’s Kapiolani Boulevard. Cayetano moved calmly and stoically through the crowd, heavily draped in leis, as television screens on the walls showed her slipping behind Green’s commanding lead.

There was a generous spread of food and an open bar and the crowd sat quietly at their tables, their eyes fastened on the screens. “I thought it would be a lot closer,” said Cayetano supporter Kent Thompson. “She had a lot of good issues.”

Cayetano conceded the race to Green soon after the first results came out.

“Politics is always interesting and one can never speculate. I’m happy that we put up a great campaign,” Cayetano said during an interview with Hawaii News Now. “I think it’s time to congratulate lieutenant governor Green and also to acknowledge all of the candidates who ran in this race. I think we’ve all put our best foot forward, and I’m just pleased to be a part of this process.”

Green, who served two terms in the state House and two and a half terms in the state Senate before he was elected lieutenant governor in 2018, had spent $2.65 million on his run for governor by late July.

At public appearances Green pitched his plan to impose a new $50 per person fee on arriving tourists, and predicted that extra charge would help reduce the visitor traffic into Hawaii while raising about $350 million for the state.

He also proposed eliminating the state excise tax on food and medicine — although prescription medicines are already exempt from the tax —  and said he is prepared to use the governor’s emergency powers if necessary to speed construction of more housing.

The air conditioning in the Grove restaurant quit sometime Saturday afternoon, but that didn’t stop Green’s supporters from digging into hot pupus including cheeseburgers and cold ones like sashimi.

Shortly after 9:30 p.m., state Rep. Sylvia Luke joined Green on the stage at the Grove for brief remarks, and Green told the crowd that, “If the ticket ends up being me and Rep. Luke, Josh and Sylvia, I think it’s safe to say we will put the people first every day and every night for the next four years.” Luke led the Democratic primary race for lieutenant governor.

Green said that he hopes Democratic candidates can “bury the hatchet” after elections conclude Sunday morning during the Democratic unity breakfast.

He noted that he, Luke and other candidates had tough races marked by political attacks and negative campaign ads. “We may be grumbly and angry at times, but we always thank you,” Green said, addressing supporters and voters.

Several lawmakers came to support Green including Sen. Glenn Wakai and House Vice Speaker John Mizuno. They were joined by Reps. Dan Holt, Cedric Gates, Chris Todd, Nicole Lowen and Sean Quinlan. Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm also made an appearance early in the night.

On the Republican side of the house, Aiona entered the race on the last day candidates were allowed to file nomination papers. He immediately became a top contender, and early polls showed he and Penn were neck and neck. A more recent poll predicted Aiona would win the primary.

The nomination of Aiona, a former judge who went on to serve two terms under Gov. Linda Lingle, signals that Republicans in Hawaii prefer traditional GOP candidates compared to those who align more with the politics of former President Donald Trump.

He ran a low-key campaign compared to his opponents, who mostly raised and spent more money than he did on the campaign trail.

Election 2022 Hawaii Republican gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona waving governor race
Former Hawaii Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona won the GOP nomination for governor. AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy/2022

In an interview with Hawaii News Now late Saturday, Aiona said he had exchanged text messages with BJ Penn and he doesn’t think there’s any ill will between him and the other GOP candidates.

“I don’t see any animosity between any of us and I’m hopeful that we can be united as we move forward into the general election because this is all about what we all stood for, which is that we all have a robust, two-party system in the state of Hawaii,” Aiona said.

Given the opportunity to pin down his opponents on issues during the HNN debate earlier this summer, Aiona declined to ask any questions and instead thanked his opponents for running at all.

Aiona also noted the low voter turnout rate, and said he would appeal to people who hadn’t voted. He speculated many didn’t participate because “they’re fed up with the corruption that we’ve had; they’re fed up with the bickering that was happening on the Democrat side.”

“Only 30% of the voters voted. There’s a lot of votes out there,” he said. “So I want to appeal to them also. Let’s make the change that I’ve been hearing about … and let’s bring back a robust, two-party system to the state of Hawaii.”

Deliberately or not, Aiona established himself as a foil to Penn during the campaign. Penn and Tsuneyoshi have both questioned the validity of the 2020 election that saw Joe Biden elected president. When asked about the 2020 election results at a Hawaii News Now debate, Aiona said that he had no evidence the election was stolen.

Numerous investigations in multiple states have shown no evidence of widespread voter fraud. State and federal courts have rejected numerous baseless claims, including here in Hawaii, that the election was somehow stolen.

On topics like abortion access, which is protected in Hawaii, Aiona said he would leave such decisions up to the Legislature and to voters.

Earlier this year, Penn joined protesters opposed to mask and vaccine mandates at a Board of Education meeting.

While Aiona said he does not support vaccine mandates like those instituted during the pandemic, he is not against vaccinations and did not go so far as to question the efficacy of vaccinations for Covid-19 and other diseases.

However, he said the lockdowns and mandates did play into his decision to run again. “We have a broken moral compass. I think we’ve lost our way in many ways and so I want to make sure that we can bring that back. We can fix this compass,” he said.

Penn has declined multiple requests for interviews by local media, but in several forums said that he supports zoning rules that would allow for more housing, legalizing recreational marijuana and growing more exportable food.

Tsuneyoshi, a first-term Honolulu City Council member, trailed in the polls this election season. Cordery led a strong fundraising and campaigning effort, but failed to gain ground in the run-up to the primary.

Civil Beat reporters Blaze Lovell and Kirstin Downey contributed to this report.

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