Meet the Republican Who Could Take Hawaii Away From Democrats

A three-way race and an unpopular incumbent are giving the state’s GOP a real chance of winning the Governor’s Mansion.

James Aiona, Lt. Governor of Hawaii, speaks to survivors, Hickam airmen, friends and family members of the victims of the Dec. 7, 1941 attacks on Hickam Air Field, during a remembrance ceremony Dec. 7 at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. The ceremony marked the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Field, and paid tribute the Airmen who were attacked and died on that tragic day.
National Journal
Emily Schultheis
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Emily Schultheis
July 9, 2014, 5:42 p.m.

HALEI­WA, Hawaii—”Duke! Duke! Duke!”

The Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee for gov­ernor of Hawaii stepped to the po­di­um at a fun­draiser for the state GOP, greeted by cheers and a stand­ing ova­tion. Duke Aiona is the man who “will win, can win,” a state sen­at­or in­sisted as he in­tro­duced the nom­in­ee. And the 200 donors and sup­port­ers in the audi­ence ap­par­ently agreed.

“I feel so con­fid­ent right now,” Aiona said in a pa­vil­ion lit by tiki torches, nestled in a val­ley on Oahu’s North Shore. “This is a state­ment in and of it­self, to have so many people here sup­port­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party.”

It’s an odd sen­ti­ment from a GOP pol in one of Amer­ica’s most Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing states. In­deed, Hawaii Re­pub­lic­ans read­ily ad­mit they’re an en­dangered spe­cies these days: Demo­crats con­trol the Gov­ernor’s Man­sion, both U.S. Sen­ate seats, and both U.S. House seats. Just one Re­pub­lic­an serves in the 25-mem­ber state Sen­ate. What’s more, this is not Aiona’s first try at the gov­ernor­ship: He lost to sit­ting Gov. Neil Aber­crom­bie by double di­gits in 2010.

But this year, Aber­crom­bie’s un­pop­ular­ity and a three-way gen­er­al-elec­tion race have com­bined to open a rare, if nar­row, path to a Re­pub­lic­an gubernat­ori­al win. Add to the mix that Aiona is a top-tier re­cruit and has high name ID across the state, and even some Demo­crats re­luct­antly ac­know­ledge their prob­lem.

“In the nor­mal course of events, a Re­pub­lic­an really shouldn’t win,” said one Demo­crat­ic strategist. “But this is de­cidedly not the nor­mal course of events.”

While there’s been little gen­er­al-elec­tion polling in the gov­ernor’s race, and polling in Hawaii is no­tori­ously dif­fi­cult to do, a June Hon­olulu Civil Beat match­up between the three can­did­ates found Aiona with a 6-point lead over Aber­crom­bie, 33 per­cent to 27 per­cent. Former Hon­olulu May­or Mufi Han­nemann, the in­de­pend­ent can­did­ate, trailed at 18 per­cent.

But that’s not the only thing mak­ing Re­pub­lic­ans hope­ful. As a former lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor un­der Linda Lingle, a Re­pub­lic­an who won two terms here, Aiona is well-known across the state and is a vet­er­an of statewide cam­paigns. And as a Hawaii nat­ive, he’s got a good story to tell—born in Pearl City, son of a Por­tuguese-Hawaii­an fath­er and a Chinese moth­er; went to col­lege in Cali­for­nia but re­turned home to go to law school and start his ca­reer.

In con­trast, Aber­crom­bie has real prob­lems this year, and not just with Re­pub­lic­an voters. He’s in a ser­i­ous primary con­test against Dav­id Ige, a long­time state sen­at­or who’s been pulling ahead of the in­cum­bent. In­deed, Demo­crats know Aber­crom­bie is vul­ner­able in the Aug. 9 primary.

He has a dis­tinct­ive polit­ic­al style, with lofty rhet­or­ic that crit­ics even in­side his party say of­ten doesn’t match his res­ults. “You either like him or you don’t—so he’s been very po­lar­iz­ing dur­ing his four years,” said Randy Per­reira, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Hawaii Gov­ern­ment Em­ploy­ees As­so­ci­ation, Hawaii’s largest uni­on. (Po­lar­iz­ing not least with HGEA it­self, which en­dorsed Aber­crom­bie in 2010 but has stayed neut­ral this year, after the gov­ernor angered labor by in­tro­du­cing pay cuts for gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees.)

Aber­crom­bie de­fen­ded his ten­ure at a Demo­crat­ic for­um in Hon­olulu in June, say­ing it’s im­possible to get things done without mak­ing a few people angry along the way. “My sole pur­pose was to give and to give back to Hawaii,” he said. “Lead­er­ship re­quires ac­tion—lead­er­ship and ac­tion have gone to­geth­er.”

But it’s not just Aber­crom­bie’s re­cord or his un­pop­ular­ity that are cre­at­ing op­por­tun­ity for Aiona. In­deed, Demo­crats face a messy gen­er­al elec­tion wheth­er their nom­in­ee is the cur­rent gov­ernor or Ige, thanks to the entry of Han­nemann, the former Demo­crat now run­ning as an in­de­pend­ent who threatens to play spoil­er in Novem­ber.

The three-way race means the threshold for vic­tory will be lower—and, de­pend­ing on how well Han­nemann does, it could be much lower. Con­sider Maine, an­oth­er gen­er­ally blue state, in 2010: Re­pub­lic­an Paul LePage won the Gov­ernor’s Man­sion with just 38 per­cent of the vote; in­de­pend­ent can­did­ate Eli­ot Cut­ler took 36.5 per­cent of the vote, beat­ing out even the Demo­crat.

For a Re­pub­lic­an in a state like Hawaii, get­ting to 35 or 40 per­cent is a far easi­er task than get­ting a full ma­jor­ity—and Aiona’s cam­paign is bet­ting on that very phe­nomen­on.

The GOP can­did­ate’s team has hit the ground run­ning, with field of­fices on the is­lands of Maui and Hawaii (the Big Is­land) and an in­form­al can­vassing group on Kauai.

And while he’ll most cer­tainly be out­spent by Aber­crom­bie—as­sum­ing the gov­ernor makes it through the primary—Aiona says he’s bet­ter pre­pared to re­spond to Demo­crat­ic at­tacks than he was in 2010.

“I let them define me as be­ing that [ca­reer] politi­cian also,” Aiona told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view at his cam­paign headquar­ters in Hon­olulu, adding that Demo­crats primar­ily—and ef­fect­ively—worked to tie him to every con­tro­ver­sial de­cision of the Lingle ad­min­is­tra­tion. “The gov­ernor and I had some dis­agree­ments, but it was her ad­min­is­tra­tion, I’m a part of her team, I sup­port her.”

De­fin­ing him­self as sep­ar­ate from Lingle, who ended her two terms in of­fice fairly un­pop­u­lar and then lost the 2012 Sen­ate race by more than 20 points, is crit­ic­al for Aiona—as is mak­ing it clear he doesn’t toe the line with the na­tion­al party in a state where that na­tion­al party isn’t par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar.

“The na­tion­al brand of the Re­pub­lic­ans at this time is angry white people—and Hawaii is heav­ily minor­ity-based,” said Dav­id Chang, a former Hawaii GOP chair­man who said he is help­ing Aiona. “What we have to be able to ex­plain is, it’s not a race thing, it’s not a cul­ture thing, it’s about val­ues: equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity, giv­ing our chil­dren the abil­ity to achieve the Amer­ic­an Dream.”

Aiona too stresses that he’s not in lock­step with the Re­pub­lic­an Party na­tion­ally. “I am a part of the Re­pub­lic­an Party be­cause the fun­da­ment­al val­ues I have are the fun­da­ment­al val­ues the party has,” he said. “But I am not a party per­son.”

Cer­tainly, it’s still an up­hill battle for Aiona. But his climb has already star­ted, and mo­mentum ap­pears to be on the GOP’s side.

“It’s al­ways a chal­lenge for Re­pub­lic­ans to get elec­ted in a statewide race in Hawaii, but when you have a good can­did­ate like we have now with Duke Aiona, we have a good chance,” said Lingle, the Re­pub­lic­an who was elec­ted gov­ernor here twice. “I’m very ex­cited about [Aiona’s] chances.”

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