There were about a dozen people in the room when it happened. They were seated around tables, watching two televisions. Patriotic bunting and white signs bearing the name “Abercrombie” hung around the windows that faced Main Street in Wailuku. There was a stack of pizzas off to the side, as well as a few cakes, plates of ahi sashimi, bowls of noodles and rice and a cooler full of bottled water.
These were Governor Neil Abercrombie’s most steadfast Maui volunteers–the ones who’d posted signs around the island and waved at passing motorists for the last couple of months–and this was their election night party. They were good Democrats, backing their governor against an insurgent who polls showed most voters had never even heard of. Most were watching the screens, which were set to KGMB. Near the back, one volunteer kept vigil over a laptop, waiting for the night’s first printout of votes.
They came shortly before 7pm–about 104,000 votes. The KGMB crew happened to be doing a remote at the Honolulu headquarters of Senator David Ige–Abercrombie’s Democratic challenger–when the state Office of Elections posted the first results. The room on the screen erupted in cheering. The room I was sitting in fell silent.
Just a few minutes before, University of Hawaii Political Science Professor Colin Moore had told the KGMB anchors that if Ige–who had been ahead in the polls for weeks prior–was ahead by a large margin on the first printout, then it was pretty much over for Abercrombie.
For the next half hour–I finally left them alone after that–Abecrombie’s lonely volunteers in Wailuku chatted about the tight US Senate race, Mike Molina leading incumbent Maui County Councilman Mike White and Lt. Governor Shan Tsutsui’s strong lead over challenger Senator Clayton Hee. No one mentioned Ige’s nearly 35 percentage point margin over Abercrombie. No one needed to.
“If projections hold true and Abercrombie loses, he had a 10 to one fundraising advantage,” John Hart, a professor of communications at Hawaii Pacific University, told me the day before the election. “The expenditure reports I’ve seen show large payments to consultants. Look at the campaign: how can you have this, and be an incumbent, and still lose? We’re going to study this in college as an example of what went wrong.”
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With the exception of Abercrombie’s defeat, it was a remarkably conservative Primary Election. At press time the U.S. Senate race is undecided. Though the “final” printout of results showed Democratic U.S. Senator Brian Schatz leading challenger Colleen Hanabusa by 1,635 votes, two precincts in Hurricane Iselle-damaged Puna haven’t yet voted. The state Office of Elections has scheduled a special election there Friday, but Hanabusa has vowed to sue to stop it. If Schatz pulls off a victory (and analysts say he has the advantage there), then every person Abercrombie appointed to office following U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye’s 2012 death–including Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who hails from Maui–came out on top.
“I think Schatz had a modern, well-run campaign,” Hart told me a few days after the election. “His people did computerized targeting and got an endorsement from a sitting president. They got big PAC money. They blocked their opponent from getting big endorsements and PAC money.
“But Colleen ran an old school, traditional campaign,” Hart noted. The fact that she came within 2,000 votes of defeating incumbent Schatz reflects generously on her. But Hart also noted that near the end, Schatz turned negative on her, it seems to have helped.
“Voters say they don’t like negative ads,” Hart said, “but they work.”
In any case, both Schatz and Hanabusa have set up shop in Puna.
“The candidates can go to every door if they wish,” Hart said. “But they have to be sensitive–they’ll be talking to people who don’t have ice or electricity and asking for their votes.”
Of the two, Hart said Hanabusa has the tougher job. “She needs 60 percent of the votes in Puna,” he said. “For every five votes cast, she needs three.”
Closer to home, Maui County incumbents did well, with one glaring exception: Maui County Councilman Mike White. Though he was first elected in 2010, and faced no challenger in 2012, White wasn’t even the top vote-getter in the four-way race for his seat this time around. That honor fell on Mike Molina, who held the seat for the decade before White. Of course, White made the top two, so he and Molina will face off this November.
As for the rest, there were few surprises. The biggest of which is that we won’t have James “Kimo” Apana to kick around anymore. For a guy who a dozen years ago was the biggest name in county politics, his loss to rookie Justin Woodson (appointed by Abercrombie to the 9th House seat during the big post-Inouye shakeup of late 2012/early 2013) by 311 votes is pretty miserable. If Woodson, who’d never before run in an election before, had a swelled head on Sunday morning for beating the great Kimo Apana, it’s well-deserved. State Senator Roz Baker, D–6th District, managed to knock out her challenger, Terez Amato, but by a fairly thin margin (451 votes).
As for the mayor’s race, to no one’s surprise incumbent Mayor Alan Arakawa scored nearly 64 percent of the vote. The number two finisher, lifeguard Tamara Paltin (who managed to win just 12 percent of the vote) will face off against him in November.
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Just 41.4 percent of Hawaii’s registered voters showed up on Election Day–slightly less than it was four years ago, the last time we had a primary election in a non-presidential year (in Maui County, this year’s turnout was a mere 32.2 percent).
“I don’t think voting on Saturday helps,” Hart said. “If you have an unmotivated electorate, the last thing they want to do is vote on their day off.” But given predictions of doom over Hurricane Iselle, it could have been even worse.
Ige’s final margin of victory over Abercrombie was a little over 35 percentage points–a far greater margin than the polls showed, Hart noted after the election. Abercrombie also lost nearly every precinct in the state, though he did manage to pick up a few in Maui County, the Office of Election’s final vote breakdown shows.
State campaign spending reports also show that Ige spent just $447,000 on his campaign–less than a tenth of Abercrombie’s $4.7 million spending spree, as Hart noted. Or put another way, Ige’s victory came at the cost of $2.88 per vote, while Abercrombie spent an astonishing $65.26 per vote and lost.
The result is that Ige squares off in November against two far better-known candidates: Republican James “Duke” Aiona and Mufi Hannemann, who’s running under the Hawaii Independent Party.
Ironically, Abercrombie’s first message to his supporters after his loss said he had “no regrets.”
“Today, I begin the final chapter of a forty-year career of service to the people of Hawai‘i,” Abercrombie emailed supporters shortly before midnight on Election Night. “I couldn’t possibly be more appreciative of the faith and support you’ve given me. I have no regrets simply because every waking breath has been for you, Hawai‘i. I have given all that I could, every day that I could.”
Since 1975, when he first got elected to the state House of Representatives, Abercrombie has held some political office in Hawaii. Now that nearly 40-year streak is ending, and in one of the most dramatic possible ways.
The day before the election, I asked Hart and Moore if they could name any substantive, policy disagreements between Abercrombie and Ige. Both laughed.
“It’s remarkable that there are so few,” Moore said. “One is that Ige is questioning state subsidies for pre-k education. Can I even come up with something else? I could, but the number is vanishingly close to zero.”
So why did Abercrombie become the first sitting governor in Hawaii state history to lose a primary reelection race?
“It has to do with a series of things,” UH Professor Moore told me the day before the election, when the polls were showing Abercrombie would most likely lose. “He’s done a series of mistakes that frustrated a number of his constituents.”
Hart agreed. “If you look at the special interest groups that backed him, one by one he’s made policy decisions that alienated them,” he said.
Such mistakes included Abercrombie’s early support for the Public Lands Development Corporation (PLDC), which Abercrombie signed into law in 2011 after it quietly sailed through the state Legislature. But strong public backlash to the idea of commercial development in state parks soon followed, and Abercrombie and the Legislature backpedaled. Abercrombie signed an act repealing the whole thing in 2013.
There was also Abercrombie’s torturous dealings with the powerful 13,500-member Hawaii State Teachers’ Association (HSTA). Abercrombie angered the union by imposing a five percent pay cut on teachers in 2011. Though Abercrombie and the union eventually sort of made up in 2013, with Abercrombie agreeing to teachers raises and so forth, the union endorsed Ige in the Primary.
And let’s not forget that Abercrombie proposed pension taxes and cutting public worker benefits as a way of addressing the state’s considerable unfunded liabilities. That didn’t win him any friends with the public employee unions.
Then there was Abercrombie’s relationship with the state Legislature, which Moore characterized as “relatively poor.” Abercrombie took office after eight years of the always Democratic House and Senate sparring with Republican Governor Linda Lingle. Overriding vetoes was almost unheard of prior to Lingle, but had become a usual thing during the Lingle years. If Abercrombie–who had more than three decades of legislative experience–was expecting a deferential House and Senate, then he was badly mistaken.
“He’s managed to frustrate a lot of Democrats in the Legislature,” said Moore. “My theory is that Ige was encouraged to run as a shot across Abercrombie’s bow–a way to express displeasure that he did not pay proper respect to various committee chairs. It was meant to be a strong message, and he won.”
Then there’s the simple matter that people just don’t like Abercrombie. “His personality as an executive has turned people off. It’s a style thing. Honestly, he hasn’t done a bad job. There isn’t any glaring error.”
Hart said the poll data explained Abercrombie’s abysmal showing during the election. “Seventy percent of those voting for Ige are doing so because they don’t like Abercrombie personally,” he said. “It’s a charisma thing. The policy differences [between the two men] are slight. [But] his style is abrasive. At times he can be charming, but he hasn’t been lately.”
In fact, voters have long known about Abercrombie’s “aggressive” and “abrasive” personality. In his 1988 book Money, Color and Sex in Hawai‘i Politics, Chad Blair–who today reports for Honolulu Civil Beat–wrote that, “In some ways, Neil Abercrombie personifies negative characteristics of whites–even his supporters agree that he is outspoken and aggressive.”
Blair then quoted Democratic Party activist Amefil Agbayani: “Abercrombie may be a loud-mouthed haole, but he is our loud-mouthed haole.”
Though campaign spending records show Agbayani donated $6,000 to Abercrombie’s reelection campaign, attitudes of most other Democrats, it seems, had changed.
“People say they like politicians who are frank,” one local politician told me after the election. “No, they don’t.”
Illustration by Darris Hurst