Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona is making his third run for governor at a time when corruption and scandal have punctured the political armor that normally protects Democrats in Hawaii. But it won’t be easy for him to capitalize on this moment.

His pitch is simple, and it has worked before. He aims to harness public disgust at the long series of embarrassing charges and convictions of people in government — especially the criminal convictions of two Democratic lawmakers this year — to propel his campaign forward. That logic is embedded in his pithy campaign slogan, “Trust, Respect and Balance.”

“We believe that corruption is a result of the one-party dominance that we have in this state,” Aiona said at the opening of an interview earlier this month. “We’re all about a robust two-party system.”

He offers his credentials as a lawyer, as lieutenant governor for eight years, as a state judge for 12 years as well as his status as a grandfather of eight children. “All of that just lends to me being what we need right now in the executive branch for these times,” he said.

Aiona’s opponent is Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a physician who is regarded in Democratic circles as a strong, well-funded candidate who became particularly well-known to Hawaii voters for the prominent role he played during the pandemic.

Republican Gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona speaks during a press conference about housing solutions.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona says the recent corruption scandals are what make this election different. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The voters have every reason to be concerned about corruption in Hawaii, and they were in a similarly sour mood two decades ago as scandal splattered the Democrats in the run-up to the 2002 gubernatorial election. Several Democrats went to jail, and Linda Lingle became the first Republican elected as Hawaii governor since statehood.

Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie quips that Lingle’s main message in that campaign was “I’m not them” — referring to Hawaii Democrats — and he says it worked. Hawaii didn’t have enough Republican voters to deliver victory to Lingle in 2002, but she won by convincing unhappy Democrats and independents to take her side.

But the Democrats don’t seem as worried about that this year. For one thing, Hawaii voters have been chipping away at the Republican minority in the Legislature for years, and now only five out of 76 seats in the state House and Senate are held by the GOP. By contrast, when Lingle ran in 2002 the Republicans held 19 seats in the state House alone.

The rancor in Washington, D.C., that bubbled up in the last two decades hasn’t helped. When voters think about politics they often focus on the national scene, and Donald Trump appears to have made things worse for local Republicans. Well-known GOP members such as Charles Djou and Beth Fukumoto outright quit the party in recent years.

Rick Tsujimura, a veteran of Democratic gubernatorial campaigns dating back to Gov. John Burns, suggests the baggage of Aiona’s own party will make it nearly impossible for him to win this year.

Aiona’s pathway to victory “is a narrow ledge on a Pali-type cliff,” Tsujimura said. “He’s trying to separate himself from the national GOP, but the reality is, I don’t think he can.”

Aiona needs the support of some Hawaii Democrats and independents — just as Lingle did — but today’s national Republican Party is deeply unpopular with many of those voters. If Aiona wants to distance himself from the national GOP, he needs to publicly part ways with the likes of Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Tsujimura said.

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But that won’t play well with Aiona’s own Republican base. “The more he runs away from the national party, the less GOP votes he gets,” Tsujimura said. “The problem is, he’s holding onto a segment of the population that is essentially loyal to Trump.”

“When Linda Lingle did it, this sort of red-blue dichotomy wasn’t as stark as it is today,” he said. “I think for Duke to try and thread that needle, it’s going to be really tough.”

For his part, Aiona contends that the drumbeat of corruption indictments and convictions in Hawaii this year is what makes this election different from his last run eight years ago. “I’ve never seen it like this before,” he said, adding that electing him governor will make a difference.

“That’s what you get with a two-party system,” Aiona said. “They’re going to keep me honest; I’m going to keep them honest. They’re going to have to be able to explain what they’re doing, and I’m going to have be able to explain what we’re doing.”

He contends the Hawaii Republican Party is quite different from the national party, and stresses the need for civility in political discourse in Hawaii. He said it is mostly the media that questions him about the link between the national and the state parties.

Once in a while a voter asks him if he voted for Trump — he did vote for him in 2016, although his first choice was Marco Rubio — but Aiona says he is focused on grassroots campaigning and stresses his credentials as a leader. He mostly frames discussion of political parties in terms of the local Democrats’ problem with corruption, and the local Republicans as the solution.

“People are recognizing that. They admit that this is not something we want, we do need a change, and a two-party system is what is necessary so we can have that transparency and accountability that we need,” Aiona said.

Voters wait in long lines to cast their ballots at the Honolulu Hale on Election Day Tuesday, November 3, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at Honolulu Hale for the general election in 2020. Aiona is frustrated with media and pundits who suggest he has little chance of winning this year, saying that discourages voters from participating. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

Another reason for the Democrats’ skepticism about Aiona’s chances is his previous two campaigns for governor were not particularly close contests.

In 2010, the team of Neil Abercrombie and Brian Schatz received 57.8% of the general election vote, while then-Lt. Gov. Aiona and his running mate Lynn Finnegan received only 40.8%. The Republicans lost by 65,413 votes out of about 383,000 cast in that race.

Four years later Aiona teamed up with Elwin Ahu in an unsuccessful challenge to Democrats David Ige and Shan Tsutsui in what turned out to be a three-way governor’s race.

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Ige and Tsutsui garnered 49% of the vote to win, while Aiona-Ahu received 36.7%. Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann received 11.6% of the vote that year running as a third-party candidate. The vote count was somewhat closer that year, with Aiona trailing Ige by 45,331 votes.

Lingle spent years preparing for the opportunity that presented itself when corruption scandals erupted 20 years ago, leading an effort as then-GOP party chair to build up the Republican Party apparatus and add to the seats the party held in the Legislature.

By contrast, Aiona entered the governor’s race at the last minute in June, giving him less than five months to organize and mobilize a winning campaign before mail-in voting begins in October.

And then there’s money. Lingle outspent Mazie Hirono by a margin of about 3-to-1 in the 2002 general election, and Aiona will not have that advantage. The latest state campaign spending reports show Green had more than $515,000 on hand after this year’s primary election, while Aiona had only about $5,300.

Democratic insiders said it will be extremely difficult for Aiona to raise the money he needs for political advertising in these final weeks before the general election because many or most of the major campaign donors have already committed to Green.

Lynn Finnegan, Aiona’s 2010 running mate who is now chair of the Hawaii Republican Party, suggests that Aiona has the advantage of experience. This is his fifth statewide campaign, including his two successful campaigns for lieutenant governor as Lingle’s running mate, and his two previous unsuccessful bids for governor.

“There is name recognition for Duke Aiona. It’s not like we have to spend millions of dollars helping people understand who he is,” Finnegan said. And she said many people look back on the Lingle years as a positive time for the state. “For us, it’s about activating these folks.”

“We know that it’s going to be a David-and-Goliath situation,” largely because of the challenges the Republican Party has faced since Lingle left office in 2010, she said. But she said it was the Democrats who showed divisiveness during the primary election debates this year between Green, Kai Kahele and Vicky Cayetano.

Lynn Finnegan with Duke Aiona in 2014. Finnegan said Aiona is well-known to the voters after four statewide campaigns, so the party does not need to spend large sums to introduce him to the public this year. Civil Beat/2014

“Duke has always been about respectful behavior and respecting people in general,” Finnegan said. “I’ve seen that every single time I’ve seen him when he’s in office, when he’s campaigning, and when he’s at home being Duke. He’s a very respectful person, and it shows, and I think that’s what people want to see. And so no matter what’s happening on a national level, you will get respect and honor.”

Finnegan believes a crucial issue this election is how Hawaii rebounds economically from the shock of the pandemic. She contends the national data shows states led by Republicans had a more robust economic recovery.

“We are seeing the threat to our island people from inflation and cost of living, and you can’t tell me that inflation isn’t caused by Democrat policies,” she said. “It’s about this spending and inflation and wages not keeping up with the prices in Hawaii and across the nation.”

Abercrombie is predicting Aiona won’t even fare as well this year as he did in 2014, when he ended the three-way race more than 12 percentage points behind Ige.

Abercrombie argues that when Lingle won, she had a healthier state Republican Party to support her. “Duke’s problem is, he’s saying ‘I’m not them, look at the corruption there, they’re not handling it,’ but his Republican Party doesn’t exist any more. It’s a Trumpist cult,” Abercrombie said.

In years past, the Republican Party in Hawaii represented “a genuine philosophical and value base in Hawaii that caused those of us who were Democrats to have to constantly check ourselves,” he said.

Republicans put pressure on the Democrats to be true to their own values, and to properly apply those values to policy, law and legislation, Abercrombie said.

Aiona makes almost exactly that argument when he says the state needs to elect Republicans such as himself to restore balance to state politics, and Abercrombie said Aiona makes a “very strong point.”

Abercrombie argues the only thing that could turn the tide for Aiona now “is if some kind of catastrophic mistake of some kind was made by Green, and even then, at this stage it’s hard to understand what that could be.”

“That’s not a strategy, that’s a prayer. That’s a plea, that’s not a plan. So, he has no plan to win,” Abercrombie said.

Aiona is frustrated with media accounts and commentators who say he has no chance, because that chorus of naysayers has many voters abstaining from the election. Some have come to believe nothing will change no matter what they do, and Aiona has to convince them to register and vote.

“I have to tell you, there’s been a lot of people like that, and I’m trying to convince them otherwise,” he said.

Aiona points out that hundreds of thousands of people don’t bother to vote each cycle, and “if you continue to let 20% of the population, of the registered voters, determine who is going to be your representative, then yeah, you’re going to get the same old, same old. This is why you guys have to vote.”

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