For most of the 2014 election cycle, Republican incumbents have had to worry about primary threats from tea party challengers, but this weekend in Hawaii, two incumbent Democrats are the ones facing what appear to be notable threats from primary challengers.
The latest sign of a potential upheaval in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate gubernatorial race is a new Hawaii News Now/Star Advertiser Hawaii poll showing Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) ahead of Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), 50 percent to 42 percent. But that poll conflicts with multiple previous surveys which show Schatz leading Hanabusa.
That’s especially surprising given other factors Schatz’s campaign has had going for him. He’s been endorsed by President Barack Obama, Al Gore, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and MoveOn.org. He’s also outspent Hanabusa two-to-one in the primary, according to Roll Call. Nevertheless the latest poll’s findings (and polling can be unusually unreliable in Hawaii) actually flipped the TPM Polltracker average in Hanabusa’s favor. It’s something to be taken seriously, especially given that earlier in the 2014 cycle then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) was defeated by a little-known primary challenger despite spending more, a greater national stature, and incumbency.
Meanwhile, less than a week before the primary on Saturday, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie appears to be facing a serious threat from state Sen. David Ige (pronounced ee-gay). A recent Honolulu Civil Beat poll showed Ige leading Abercrombie, 51 percent to 41 percent. Recent polls by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Honolulu Civil Beat/MRG have also found Ige leading Abercrombie by double digits.
So what’s going on here? Well in the case of Abercrombie, it seems to be a matter of popularity and particularly style. Unemployment is low and the economy is growing, but polling suggests that’s not translating to preference for Abercrombie. The problem, for Abercrombie, is partially style and perception, University of Hawaii political scientist Colin Moore told TPM, rather than policy differences (Ige and Abercrombie are pretty close on the political spectrum).
“It’s not clear how well this connects to one specific policy,” Moore said, noting that Abercrombie had managed to frustrate union members and particularly teachers union that endorsed Ige and stumbled in some administration rollouts. But, Moore said, Abercrombie’s hard-charging style and, to a degree, the fact that he went against the late Sen. Dan Inouye’s (D-HI) wish to appoint Hanabusa to succeed him, has turned off voters. Ige’s style, meanwhile is much more focused on being a consensus builder.
“It’s curious because Abercrombie’s been in politics here for 40 years so I think it worked as a legislator where he could say ‘I’m fighting for you’ but as a governor that style seems to have really frustrated a lot of people who I think find him arrogant, disrespectful in a way others might find it sort of funny and dynamic and some people still do,” Moore said.
Abercrombie’s troubles in his primary race may be serious enough that Schatz is taking steps to not be punished by proxy (Schatz was Abercrombie’s lieutenant governor before being appointed to the Senate seat). Roll Call recently noted that Schatz’s campaign has focused on what he’s done as a freshman lawmaker and not so much his time as lieutenant governor, partially to keep a little distance from Abercrombie.
An important aspect of Hawaii politics that seems to be trending along these two races is changing demographics in the state. A Washington Post profile of the Senate race noted that Schatz versus Hanabusa isn’t totally about ideology. Rather, a big part of the heated primary is the divide between the Japanese-American political machine against a younger, whiter, more liberal wing of the Hawaii Democratic Party. With the Senate race, Hanabusa represents the Japanese-American contingent like Inouye did and Schatz is aligned more with the whiter, more liberal wing.
Both fights are derived in one way, from the death of Inouye. It’s hard to say exactly how much heat Abercrombie has gotten for bucking Inouye and naming Schatz to fill Inouye’s seat but it did some damage. And that choice also set up a divided Senate primary between Schatz and Hanabusa.
But the core, common link between these Senate race and gubernatorial race isn’t just about race. Both the Democratic gubernatorial primary and the race for U.S. Senate race are battles between two candidates who don’t necessarily contrast a great deal on policy, but on style and association with various wings of the Democratic party in Hawaii, Moore said.
“It’s not just a simple ethnic politics story and it’s certainly for younger voters —those appeals matter less,” Moore said. “I think framing it as a story about the old political establishment versus sort of newer Democrats like Schatz which probably explains why he probably has so much more support from the Democratic Party than Hanabusa. He talks like a contemporary Democrat in a way she doesn’t to the same degree.”
Democrats aren’t so worried about keeping the Hawaii Senate seat. Hanabusa or Schatz —either way it seems it’ll stay in the Democratic column, but the governor’s race is another story. The race is ranked as a tossup on RealClearPolitics and there is a Republican candidate, Duke Aiona, who’s been polling ahead of Abercrombie. If Abercrombie did get the nomination that might not be the end of his troubles this election cycle.
“I think trying to read a national narrative into this race is not right. I mean Hawaii politics is just kind of its own thing,” Moore said.