Hawaii Gov. Abercrombie Just Might Lose His Primary

Only four governors have lost primaries in the past decade, but Abercrombie has irritated a long list of Hawaiians in the last four years.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the bill legalizing same-sex marriage into law.
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
Aug. 8, 2014, 1 a.m.

The last time Neil Aber­crom­bie lost an elec­tion, Barack Obama was just a few years out of col­lege. But the Hawaii gov­ernor and pres­id­en­tial fam­ily friend could be headed for a rare, spec­tac­u­lar gubernat­ori­al-primary flameout this week­end.

Pub­lic polling in the Aloha State has shown Aber­crom­bie trail­ing a little-known le­gis­lat­or by double di­gits ahead of Hawaii’s Demo­crat­ic primary Sat­urday. No in­cum­bent Hawaii gov­ernor has ever lost reelec­tion in a primary; na­tion­wide, it’s only happened four times in the last 10 years. In oth­er states, un­usu­al polit­ic­al tal­ents like Sarah Pal­in and Claire Mc­Caskill have knocked off in­cum­bent gov­ernors in their own primar­ies. In that con­text — not to men­tion Aber­crom­bie’s 10-to-1 fun­drais­ing ad­vant­age — three-dec­ade state Sen. Dav­id Ige’s po­ten­tial tri­umph looks even more in­con­gru­ous.

But even Aber­crom­bie’s own cam­paign ad­mits to be­ing in danger. When the latest loc­al me­dia polls came out, the gov­ernor’s cam­paign said its own in­tern­al sur­veys showed the race tied — quite the de­par­ture from the 14-point lead the cam­paign touted in early June.

“We’re cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic,” said Ige cam­paign man­ager Keith Hiraoka. “The re­cent polls have been very en­cour­aging, but we real­ize our op­pon­ent is go­ing to work even harder now. We can­not rest, we can’t be over­con­fid­ent, we have to keep push­ing.”

Aber­crom­bie has evoked strong feel­ings among sup­port­ers and his op­pos­i­tion alike throughout his ca­reer in Demo­crat­ic polit­ics. He hasn’t lost an elec­tion since 1986, when Mufi Han­nemann beat him in a House primary. (The two have been spar­ring for years; Han­nemann, the former Hon­olulu may­or who lost the 2010 gubernat­ori­al primary to Aber­crom­bie, de­cided earli­er this year to leave the party and run for gov­ernor as an in­de­pend­ent.) Ian Lind, a former in­vest­ig­at­ive re­port­er for the since dis­ban­ded Hon­olulu Star-Bul­let­in, worked on Aber­crom­bie’s suc­cess­ful cam­paign for Hon­olulu City Coun­cil after his 1986 loss and said op­pos­i­tion to the gov­ernor is noth­ing new. Es­pe­cially in such a small state where can­did­ates are re­cycled — as evid­enced by Han­nemann’s run — it al­most im­possible to rebrand your­self.

“Based on that ex­per­i­ence I know that Neil has al­ways had this nag­ging clump of neg­at­ive pub­lic opin­ion,” Lind said. “We al­ways thought it was around 30 per­cent when we did phone bank­ing even back then.”

Op­pos­i­tion ori­gin­ally stemmed from people who saw the nat­ive New York­er as an out­sider and from those who found it easy to peg him as a lib­er­al cliché be­cause of his looks and op­pos­i­tion to the Vi­et­nam War. The ste­reo­type was, “Oh, he’s just a long-haired hip­pie, or, he’s a com­mun­ist,” Lind said.

Aber­crom­bie’s polit­ic­al troubles haven’t been nearly as sa­la­cious as the last U.S. gov­ernor to lose a primary. In 2010, Nevada Re­pub­lic­an Jim Gib­bons suffered from a string of tabloide­sque head­lines re­gard­ing an al­leged as­sault and a messy di­vorce. But Aber­crom­bie’s is­sues and res­ult­ing un­pop­ular­ity have still caused him a world of trouble.

Aber­crom­bie’s de­cision to ap­point former Lt. Gov. Bri­an Schatz to fill the U.S. Sen­ate left open by the death of Sen. Daniel In­ouye, in­stead of In­ouye-backed Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, roiled the state’s polit­ic­al class. But a look in­to the weeds of state policy high­lights Aber­crom­bie ac­tions that each chipped away at im­port­ant Demo­crat­ic con­stitu­en­cies over the course of his first term.

Former gov­ernors back­ing Ige have called Aber­crom­bie overly busi­ness-friendly, to the point of al­low­ing the over­de­vel­op­ment of Hon­olulu’s wa­ter­front. One pro­ject Aber­crom­bie backed called for a 650 foot lux­ury con­domin­i­um high rise which ex­ceeds Hon­olulu’s cur­rent build­ing height lim­it by over 200 feet. An­oth­er new apart­ment build­ing is set to in­clude a pent­house unit selling for $100 mil­lion.

“It’s like the wild, wild west out there,” former Gov. Ben Cayetano said in a video ex­plain­ing his de­cision to en­dorse Ige. “It’s ba­sic­ally for rich people.”

Ige’s second TV ad showed view­ers shots of the Hon­olulu sky­line as a nar­rat­or tells them they have “a choice between the same politi­cians who put spe­cial in­terests ahead of you, or someone you can trust.” Ige then pledges to provide “true af­ford­able hous­ing for Hawaii’s res­id­ents.”

Aber­crom­bie has also faced op­pos­i­tion over his ac­tions on statewide de­vel­op­ment pro­jects, a lack of trans­par­ency on state Su­preme Court nom­in­a­tions, and cri­ti­cism that he blocked out the voices of the very same sup­port­ers who helped elect him in 2010. Two of the state’s biggest polit­ic­al play­ers — the Hawaii Gov­ern­ment Em­ploy­ees As­so­ci­ation and the Si­erra Club — sat out this year’s gubernat­ori­al primary.

After ac­count­ing for these dis­par­ate frus­tra­tions Lind said the gov­ernor may fi­nally have ali­en­ated just enough people to lose for the first time in 28 years. “When you add them up, yeah, he’s in danger,” Lind said.

Aber­crom­bie isn’t the only gov­ernor who’s faced a rocky road to reelec­tion this year. Idaho Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Butch Ot­ter nar­rowly over­came a primary chal­lenge in May, while in­de­pend­ent-turned-Demo­crat­ic Rhode Is­land Gov. Lin­coln Chafee re­tired rather than face a tough Demo­crat­ic primary. In an in­ter­view with KHON-TV this week, Aber­crom­bie humbly ac­know­ledged the pos­sib­il­ity that he could be­come the first gov­ernor to lose his seat in 2014, wheth­er it be on Sat­urday or in Novem­ber. Aber­crom­bie’s poll num­bers for the gen­er­al elec­tion have looked as bad as they have in the primary, and though Hawaii is heav­ily Demo­crat­ic, it elec­ted a Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor right be­fore Aber­crom­bie. Be­cause of Aber­crom­bie’s per­son­al un­pop­ular­ity, the un­der-fun­ded Ige might ac­tu­ally be a bet­ter bet for Demo­crats in the gen­er­al elec­tion.

“Emo­tion­ally, I’m just full of grat­it­ude,” Aber­crom­bie told KHON. “Whatever hap­pens, I couldn’t be hap­pi­er to have had the op­por­tun­ity to serve.”

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