WASHINGTON — A flood of special interest money has entered the Democratic primary race for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District and it’s all working toward the same purpose — sending state Rep. Patrick Branco to Washington.

Mainland groups with super PACs have spent more than $1 million supporting Branco and criticizing his opponent, former state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who polls suggest is the frontrunner in the contest.

VoteVets has spent more than $250,000 on television advertising attacking Tokuda over a 2012 endorsement she received from the National Rifle Association.

Another group, Mainstream Democrats, which includes LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman among its funders, launched its own six-figure assault on Tokuda through direct mail, criticizing her for taking thousands of dollars in donations from Monsanto Co., then spiking legislation that would have required pesticide buffer zones around schools.

Patrick Branco candidate for CD--2 speaks to Chad Blair at Chaminade University.
State Rep. Patrick Branco is the beneficiary of more than $1 million in outside spending in his race for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The negative ads have forced Tokuda, 46, into a defensive posture. Already she’s issued press releases and run her own ads defending her record on gun control.

A number of Tokuda’s former colleagues at the Legislature, including Senate President Ron Kouchi as well as Sens. Chris Lee and Rosalyn Baker, have rallied around her. They and 13 other legislators issued a press release last week asking Branco to stop misrepresenting Tokuda’s record on gun safety and calling on the super PACs supporting his campaign to tone down the attacks.

“It’s really bad to rely almost entirely on the outside, mainland money that’s pouring into the state,” Lee said Monday in an interview. “It’s worse that the ads that it’s funding are blatantly false and misleading. But it’s a whole other level beyond that the candidate who’s benefiting from it won’t even disavow that completely false information.”

Red-Boxing Allegations

Tokuda also called out Branco for inviting outside influences into the race through a practice known as red-boxing, a way for candidates to skirt campaign spending laws that prohibit coordinating with super PACs and other outside spending groups.

Red-boxing has become more prevalent in recent years as candidates use coded language to signal to super PACs and other outside spending groups what messages to push on their behalf.

It can be identified by the use of key phrases on a campaign website, such as “What voters need to know” or “Here’s what voters should read, hear or see on the go.” Candidates will often post free, downloadable images and b-roll video footage to their website to go along with their talking points and suggested target audiences.

In Branco’s case, the instructions on his website are detailed and explicit.

For example, Branco suggests that senior and liberal voters on Maui and the Big Island should be told about Tokuda’s “troubling background on gun safety” and that any messages should be “without contrast,” meaning he does not want his own likeness to appear in the ads.

“It’s definitely surprising, seeing this level of outside spending enter the race, but sadly, it’s not unexpected,” Tokuda said. “To me, he has a ‘for sale’ sign on his website.”

Tokuda’s campaign has its own stock video footage posted on YouTube, but her campaign does not appear to be using the same tactics.

The other groups backing Branco include Web3 Forward and DAO for America, which support candidates considered friendly to the cryptocurrency industry, and Bold PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Branco, 35, is both part Latino and has pushed legislation to make it easier for blockchain businesses to flourish in the islands with limited regulation.

“This is a bargain basement congressional seat.” — political media consultant Martin Hamburger

Adav Noti is the vice president and legal director of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. His organization considers red-boxing to be illegal coordination between candidates and super PACs. The problem is, he said, the Federal Election Commission has yet to do anything about it in terms of enforcement.

Noti said he reviewed the content on Branco’s website and described it as “brazen” and an “egregious” violation of the rules.

“It’s coordinated in every way you can think of,” Noti said. “What this means is that when some wealthy spender comes in and buys these ads as requested the candidate is going to be indebted to that spender. That’s exactly what anti-corruption laws are intended to prevent.”

Branco declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a text message said that he did not coordinate with any outside group and had “no idea why anyone would spend to support or oppose me.”

“We need strong campaign finance reform, and I’m going to push for that in Congress to get money out of our elections,” he said.

A Political Gamble

The amount of money VoteVets, Mainstream Democrats, Bold PAC, Web3 Forward and DAO for America have poured into CD2 is significant. The $1 million in independent expenditures is almost twice as much money as Tokuda’s campaign has raised in total this election cycle and nearly seven times the contributions received by Branco.

The prevailing political wisdom in Hawaii has generally been that Tokuda is a shoe-in. She’s the better-known candidate, having run statewide races before and serving more than a decade in the Legislature while Branco, who is completing his sole two-year term in the state House, is a relative newcomer to Hawaii politics.

A Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll from late June showed Tokuda with a 31% to 6% edge over Branco, which gave many the impression that CD2 was her seat to lose in the Aug. 13 primary, considering Republicans almost never stand a chance in the general election.

But observers say the large number of undecided voters — 63%, according to the poll — provided an opening for outside political players who would prefer to see Branco in Congress.

Jill Tokuda candidate for CD--2 speaks to Chad Blair at Chaminade University.
Former state Sen. Jill Tokuda has been the subject of attack ads, particularly those highlighting her endorsement by the NRA in 2012. She defends her record on gun control. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“Tokuda has a lead, but the polling shows it’s really soft,” said Martin Hamburger, a Washington, D.C.-based political media consultant who also does work in Hawaii. “What these groups are doing is making it clear that she has some vulnerabilities on some issues. Now it’s Branco’s job and that of his team to say ‘I’m a good alternative.’”

Much of Branco’s pitch to voters relies on the fact that he used to work as a diplomat for the State Department who served tours overseas in Colombia, Venezuela and Pakistan. He’s also stressed his background and the fact that if elected he would be the only voting member of Congress who is Native Hawaiian.

Hamburger said Hawaii has an affordable media market, which means it doesn’t cost much for well-funded PACs, such as Bold PAC or VoteVets, to gamble on an underdog candidate who doesn’t have much name recognition.

The return on investment — a consistent vote in Congress — is much higher than the $250,000 price tag, especially considering that it could cost millions of dollars in more competitive markets, such as New York, Detroit or Los Angeles.

“This is a bargain basement congressional seat,” Hamburger said.

Cheap Advertising

Kim Devlin, a campaign consultant for Mercury Public Affairs, has a similar view on the race.

In 2010, Devlin worked for Kirk Caldwell in his unsuccessful bid for Honolulu mayor. Two years later she was part of the Pacific Resource Partnership team that mounted one of the most sophisticated political operations the islands had ever seen to help Caldwell win the mayoral race in 2012.

Although Tokuda has an edge in polling, the large number of undecided voters should be concerning to her and her campaign, Devlin said.

The new money coming into the race for Branco can boost his name recognition and buy him several points at the polls, she said. It will be up to him, however, to craft a winning narrative that resonates with voters.

“Money talks,” Devlin said. “It’ll be an interesting experiment to see how voters react to the fact that it’s coming from national interests in D.C.”

Jon Soltz, the chairman and co-founder of VoteVets, agrees the race is a toss-up given the number of undecided voters and the fact that advertising is so cheap in Hawaii.

Soltz’s organization has worked on a number of campaigns in Hawaii, including for former U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Mark Takai, both of whom, he pointed out, were considered underdogs in their respective contests.

He said it’s important for Hawaii to have someone like Branco in federal office because of his background in national security.

Branco also can help fill the void left by U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, who opted out of reelection to pursue a run for governor. Kahele is a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

“This race is wide open and if it wasn’t wide open you wouldn’t see this amount of spending happening,” Soltz said. “We don’t spend money unless we intend to win.”

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