Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s announcement that she would not be running for re-election caught Hawaii’s political world by surprise.
Initially, conventional wisdom would say that Big Island State Sen. Kai Kahele is the heir apparent.
But those more skilled in the sometimes dark arts of political maneuvering would say, “Perhaps, but then again perhaps not.”
To be clear, I like Sen. Kahele. Though I do not know him well, his actions and his words during the past year indicate to me that at the end of the day he will choose people and the planet over corporate greed.
How hard he will push back against the power and influence that maintain and perpetuate the status quo in Washington, D.C., I do not know. Whether he will fall into the trap of going along to get along, also remains to be seen. Of course, these same two questions apply to every candidate, for every office — federal, state, and county.
But so far, I like what I see, and think he is a good candidate who if elected, would serve Hawaii well.
However, the political reality is that at the moment, there are no other candidates and thus no one to measure him against.
Very soon other candidates will emerge, of this, I am absolutely sure.
The allure of a primary with no incumbent is simply too strong to resist.
Yes, Sen. Kahele has a head start and yes, his campaign has apparently raised over $500,000, which indeed is a respectable sum.
However, there are at least a dozen others either now serving, or sitting on the bench who have similar or even greater name recognition, credible resumes, and the ability to raise the funds necessary to run a competitive race.
These 12 and undoubtedly, even more, are at this very moment discussing with friends, family, and potential donors – whether to jump, or not.
Each potential candidate is asking the same questions. How strong is my name recognition compared to Sen. Kahele? Is my base of friends and supporters within the Second Congressional District (CD2), which is dominated by the neighbor islands, strong and diverse enough? How many of them might already be committed to Sen. Kahele? Can I raise the money needed to win?
Very soon, someone who perhaps already has the money and the name recognition will jump in, and then in short order others will follow.
As more candidates enter the race, those with less fundraising capacity but perhaps strong name recognition and a dedicated base of supporters will likewise be emboldened to enter.
Prediction: Eventually there will be six to nine credible Democrats splitting up the votes and battling it out for this much-coveted seat in the US Congress.
Further fueling the number of candidates jumping into the fray will be State Senators midway through their 4-year terms (as is Sen. Kahele), with no requirement to resign their State Senate seat.
Add to the potential mix of credible candidates several City Council members who are terming out of their existing positions, and could also be interested.
Because Hawaii is essentially a one-party state, winning the primary on Aug. 8, 2020, is everything. In the age of Trump, there is no way that voters in this particular district will elect a Republican to Congress — remember the CD2 is Patsy Minks district.
A crowded primary with no incumbent means it’s winner take all, and garnering a majority of the vote is not needed to win.
That’s correct — the winner need not have a majority to win. A plurality of any amount is sufficient to win the primary and move to the general where a symbolic, sacrificial and unelectable Republican will simply be holding space for their Party.
In the 2006 CD2 race, the dynamics were similar. In that race, 10 Democrats threw their hats in the ring. On primary election day, now US Sen. Mazie Hirono was declared the winner after receiving only 20.7% of the vote.
I repeat, Mazie Hirono won with only 20.7% of the vote. For me, the memory is of course vivid.
Former Senate President (and eventually Congresswoman) Colleen Hanabusa came in second with 20%. Yours truly, then Senator Gary Hooser came in 5th at 9.7% just ahead of then State Rep. Brian Schatz (now US Senator) at 7%. See the complete list and exact vote counts in the attached graphic.
In theory, the more candidates that enter the race, the smaller the slice of the vote pie potentially needed to win. Thus, candidates with a “strong base” (ideological, geographic, demographic or issue centered) but who might struggle to appeal to a broader majority, are especially drawn to enter the contest.
Hence the allure of a crowded primary with no incumbent.
Everyone who enters the race will believe their base is sufficient to win the day. Excessive optimism — it’s the nature of the beast carried within every candidate.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.