Like most elections, last Saturday’s primary was a mixed bag. There were a few surprises, a few foregone conclusions and, unfortunately, a lot of voters who chose to stay home. Now, with a scant six weeks until the general election, the surviving candidates will kick their campaigns into high gear; expect lofty promises, low blows and, of course, choke sign-waving.
Before all that, let’s take a closer look at the primary results—and what they mean.
TURNOUT DOWN, BLANK VOTES UP
Of Maui’s 84,386 registered voters, 28,839 cast ballots. That’s a measly 34.2 percent, which is slightly higher than the 2008 primary but lower than the more-comparable mid-term primaries of 2006 and 2002, which also featured Mayoral races. And it’s the lowest turnout of Hawaii’s four counties.
Additionally, this election saw a rise in the number of blank votes in County Council races. In the 2008 primary, three Council races combined for about 8,000 blank votes. This year, in the same number of races, more than 12,000 votes were left blank.
The low turnout is easy to explain. Setting aside isolated cases of voter confusion and polling-place snafus, the obvious culprit is apathy. For whatever reason, a majority of people simply don’t care. The blank votes, on the other hand, may be a bit more complicated. During the recent, unsuccessful push to change the way the Council is elected—moving from countywide to district voting—some suggested voters should select only candidates within their residency areas as a form of protest. It’s impossible to say how many boxes were left unfilled for this reason—as opposed to indifference or unfamiliarity—but it’s doubtful the increase was a total coincidence.
Saturday’s results give us two expected but still-intriguing rematches. In South Maui, Don Couch finished ahead of incumbent Wayne Nishiki by almost 1,000 votes. The two squared off in a hotly contested 2008 general election race, which Nishiki won. That year, however, Nishiki trounced Couch in the primary among a larger field of candidates. Nishiki’s a political veteran who’s proven he can win in the face of adversity, but losing the primary, even narrowly, doesn’t bode well for him.
The Mayoral race will also provide a bit of electoral deja vu, as incumbent Charmaine Tavares faces former Mayor Alan Arakawa. Tavares thwarted Arakawa’s bid for a second term in 2006; now Arakawa looks poised to return the favor. Tavares did finish with the most votes amongst the 11 candidates, though she edged runner-up Arakawa by only 1 percent. Even more telling is the fact that almost 75 percent of voters chose a candidate other than Tavares. Whether that sentiment will carry over into the general—and whether Arakawa can successfully brand himself as a fresh choice—remains to be seen, but Tavares is clearly vulnerable.
THE OPEN RACES
Two veteran Councilmembers—West Maui’s Jo Anne Johnson and Upcountry’s Mike Molina—are stepping aside due to term limits, and the races to replace them featured a predictably eclectic group of candidates. In West Maui, Elle Cochran finished at the head of the pack with 7,980 votes, followed by Alan Fukuyama with 5,693. Upcountry, Mike White won handily with 10,150 votes. He’ll face runner-up Kai Nishiki, who got 6,805 votes in her second attempt to gain this seat (she lost to Molina in 2008).
Cochran and White appear to have the edge, but in each race a significant number of votes went to candidates other than the top two—9,711 in West Maui and 8,367 Upcountry. In both cases, that could be more than enough to tip the scales.
Being an incumbent is a big advantage in Hawaii, especially in the state legislature, yet Representatives Joe Souki and Joe Bertram appeared vulnerable. In the end, though, both survived—and neither really had to sweat it.
For a second straight election, Souki held off Tasha Kama. In 2008, Kama garnered 40 percent of the vote; this time, with two other candidates in the race, she got just 26 percent. Bertram, on the other hand, coasted in the 2008 primary and got a stiffer challenge this time. Bertram won by a decent margin, but his two challengers—Netra Halperin and Johnna Amorin—combined for 46 percent of the vote. Souki and Bertram will face Republican opponents in the general, but making it out of the primary was probably their biggest hurdle.
THE TOP DOGS
Easily the most contentious showdown at the state or county level was between gubernatorial hopefuls Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann; the old rivals traded frequent barbs, and at times things got downright nasty. Initially it looked like a toss-up, but as the election drew closer several polls showed Abercrombie with a healthy lead. The polls weren’t wrong: the former Congressman defeated the former Mayor of Honolulu 59 to 38 percent. Abercrombie won every county except Kauai—which was a virtual tie—and trounced Hannemann on his home turf, winning Honolulu by more than 40,000 votes. Joining Abercrombie on the Democratic ticket will be young Brian Schatz, who outpaced a large field of more experienced Lieutenant Governor hopefuls.
On the Republican side, Duke Aiona got his coronation, while Lynn Finnegan won the Lieutenant Governor race. Both Aiona and Finnegan are staunch conservatives with a firm religious base, while Schatz and even moreso Abercrombie swing far left of center. This should be an interesting race—and one that could make Abercrombie/Hannemann look like a polite exchange between friends.