Hawaii governor defeated, senator struggling in Democratic primary
Hawaii’s Gov. Neil Abercrombie was defeated and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz was fighting to avoid a similar ousting Saturday after a Democratic primary vote that occurred as the state cleaned up from Tropical Storm Iselle and awaited an incoming hurricane.
State Sen. David Ige took a broad lead over Abercrombie from the earliest returns Saturday night, and the incumbent conceded publicly little more than three hours after the polls closed. The Senate contest was a dead heat late into the night; at one point Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Schatz were separated by a mere 11 votes.
Both Hawaii races represented a rare turn in 2014: Democratic fratricide in a year that has more often seen battles within the Republican party. And the results startled in disparate ways: the lopsided repudiation of an incumbent governor with all the benefits of office, and a tight Senate race that may ultimately be decided by the ballots of voters in storm-affected areas who could not vote Tuesday.
About 8,000 voters, far more than the gap between the Senate candidates, live in precincts in the Puna district of the Big Island and will be able to cast absentee ballots in coming days.
As his bid for re-election came to a disappointing end, Abercrombie offered a concession that was by turns touching, funny, blunt and a reminder of his commitment to the voters who had just spurned him.
“We’re going to move forward, we’re going to be steadfast,” he said, alluding to a Hawaiian saying. And, he added, “every waking breath that I’ve taken, every thought that I had before I slept, was for Hawaii -- it was for you.”
Appearing less chastened than invigorated, the governor said he was headed to his opponent’s election party to pledge his full support. And soon he arrived, to congratulate Ige before the winner’s supporters.
The new Democratic nominee, who like Abercrombie appeared onstage swathed in leis, spoke with something approaching wonderment at his stunning margin over an incumbent who outspent him 10-1.
“When we started this 13 months ago, I probably had more people tell me I was crazy than really believing that this night could happen,” Ige said. He declared the results “heartwarming.”
The election was bracketed by two storms: Iselle, which made landfall Friday, and Hurricane Julio, which was expected to pass north of the islands Sunday. As Iselle hit, all four candidates suspended their campaigns and urged voters to take precautions and remain safe.
Absentee voting, encouraged as the storms neared, was up nearly 12%, with nearly 160,000 ballots cast early. About 697,000 Hawaiians were registered to vote in the primary — a slight uptick from 2012, said Rex Quidilla, a spokesman for the state’s elections office.
Early voting began in Hawaii last month, and Quidilla said “no significant” issues were being reported as a result of Iselle, apart from the two close precincts.
“It is the first time I have not voted in 45 years,” Mary Roblee lamented in an interview.
The two closed stations were in precincts where “there are miles of roads that are obstructed” and power outages, Atty. Gen. David Louie told reporters Friday.
The races for governor and U.S. Senate were uniquely entwined this year: It was Abercrombie who appointed Schatz — then his lieutenant governor — to the seat held for nearly five decades by the widely beloved Daniel K. Inouye, who died in December 2012.
Despite Inouye’s deathbed wish — that Abercrombie appoint Hanabusa, Inouye’s protege, to the Senate seat — the governor picked Schatz, in part for his relative youth. (He is 41; Hanabusa is 63.)
In an April interview with The Times, Abercrombie expressed doubts about Inouye’s request — a move that caused a firestorm among Hanabusa supporters.
The appointment and the primary battles also rested on Hawaii’s complicated ethnic politics. Abercrombie and Schatz represent Hawaii’s white electorate, and have been endorsed by the state’s native son, President Obama.
Hanabusa and Ige, both Asian Americans like Inouye, are looking to capture support from those voters, the largest segment of the state’s population, according to U.S. Census figures.
Before winning his first term in 2010, Abercrombie served in the state House and then in Congress, representing the city and county of Honolulu. Some polls in the Aloha State show Abercrombie down by double digits.
Abercrombie has touted the state’s low unemployment numbers and his role three years ago in ending “furlough Fridays” for state employees.
Ige countered that his own chairmanship of the state’s budgeting committee has given him an acute understanding of Hawaii’s fiscal needs.
Polling in the Senate race has been mixed. A recent survey from Civil Beat, a left-leaning local public affairs reporting site, had Schatz leading Hanabusa by about 8 percentage points, while a poll from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser had Hanabusa leading by the same percentage.
Since Hawaii is a bastion for Democrats, the primary winners are expected to sail to victory in November.
Two years ago the state had the lowest turnout rate in the country, with fewer than half of its registered voters casting ballots in the presidential election, according to a study from the nonpartisan NonProfit Vote.
Neal Milner, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, said he doesn’t expect the rate to increase.
“The only thing to raise turnout is these contested elections,” Milner said. “Will we see a huge increase? That’s unlikely.”
Barbara Anderson, of Hilo, went out to vote after the storm.
Anderson said that she and her husband saw little damage, but that their polling station was unusually empty.
“We didn’t have to wait at all,” Anderson said. “And usually you do have to wait a little bit. We just walked in and there were lots of booths open.”
Times staff writer Maya Srikrishnan contributed to this report.
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