HONOLULU — In a stunning defeat for an incumbent, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie was unseated by a fellow Democrat in Saturday’s primary election, as Democratic voters chose state Sen. David Ige as their nominee in one of two marquee races that have divided the party.
Abercrombie had tried to hold onto his seat while disgruntled voters turned their allegiance to Ige, who promised to bring a less confrontational political style. Voters rewarded Ige with a decisive victory.
In the U.S. Senate race, incumbent Democrat Brian Schatz also faces a threat from fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who believes the seat should have been passed on to her when her mentor, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, died in 2012. Hanabusa took a slight lead over Schatz with 50 percent compared with 47 percent for Schatz in early returns Saturday night, based on 122,000 votes cast early or absentee.
The winners of each race will face Republicans and independent candidates in the November general election, but such campaigns are often longshots in heavily Democratic Hawaii.
Abercrombie, who has spent nearly 40 years in Hawaii politics, is the first Hawaii governor to lose to a primary challenger and only the second not to win re-election. His defeat comes after President Barack Obama last month urged residents of his native state to back Abercrombie, invoking the Hawaiian word for family in a radio ad, saying Abercrombie is “like ohana to me.”
Ige said he offered an alternative for voters who are unhappy with Abercrombie’s proposal last year to raise several taxes and his political style. Ige promised in a campaign flier that “there will be no name-calling when I disagree with anyone, no disparaging remarks toward anyone, no taking sole credit for collective achievements or blaming others when things go wrong.”
Ige mounted his challenge against Abercrombie despite being outspent by about 10 to 1. While Abercrombie tore through $4.9 million through July 25, Ige spent just $447,000, according to Hawaii’s Campaign Spending Commission.
Challenging the incumbent Democrat may have hurt Ige’s ability to fundraise. But Ige, a respected state senator who served in the Legislature for 28 years, felt Hawaii was headed in the wrong direction, and that too many of the governor’s decisions were dividing communities, he said.
“There were many in the party that did not want me to run,” Ige said in a recent interview. “They felt like the incumbent should be supported.”
As the final days of campaigning drew to a close, a pair of big storms thrashed toward the islands, presenting an opportunity for Abercrombie to show a strong emotional connection to voters. His calm demeanor as Tropical Storm Iselle thrust through the islands was a contrast to his usual style.
Many Ige voters said they weren’t necessarily taken in by Ige — they just didn’t like Abercrombie.
“There’s been so much friction between Abercrombie, the Legislature and communities,” said Tom White, 62, who’s retired from the U.S. Navy and voted for Ige Saturday. “He’s too many rough edges.”
Voter John Lacy said he picked Ige on Saturday because he was disappointed in Abercrombie’s proposal for taxing pensions.
“I think he’s a much more thoughtful individual,” Lacy, a retired computer executive who lives in Honolulu, said of Ige.
Others had credited Abercrombie for making tough choices to get the state out of a recession.
“He’s been a representative in one way or another my whole life, and I think he’s very effective,” said Colleen Heyer, 49, a Honolulu homemaker who voted for Abercrombie.
Some also believed Abercrombie’s decision to appoint Schatz to the U.S. Senate seat after Inouye’s death was disrespectful to the World War II hero. Before he died, Inouye told Abercrombie that he wanted him to appoint Hanabusa to his seat.
Hanabusa has attracted many of Inouye’s supporters, though Schatz has outspent Hanabusa by more than $1 million and his ads have dominated the airways.
Hanabusa evoked Inouye’s name throughout the campaign, aligning herself with the traditional Hawaii political establishment, while Schatz touted his endorsement from Obama.
“Colleen is riding on the backs of old senior Democrats,” said Andrew Tomoso, 53, who works in the surfing and film industries and voted for Schatz on Saturday. “She’s been trying to put Schatz down on his record, which I think is old-school. We need new blood.”
Associated Press Writers Juliet Williams, Manuel Valdes, Lorin Eleni Gill and Marco Garcia contributed to this report.