HONOLULU — Hawaii state Sen. David Ige surprised political observers when he pulled off a historic upset, beating incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic primary for governor.
Now, Ige is heading into the General Election in November, when even a pollster who predicted he would trounce Abercrombie in a landslide won’t call him the front-runner despite the state’s heavy Democratic leanings.
In the race to become Hawaii’s next governor, three underdogs are battling it out, and no one’s sure who will win.
“In a three-way race, it’s almost like all bets are off,” said Becky Ward, president of Ward Research.
The firm had predicted that Ige would beat Abercrombie in the Democratic primary by 18 points, far less than Ige’s final 35-point margin of victory.
Ige was considered the underdog in that race, since a sitting Democratic governor had never before been unseated in a Hawaii primary.
Former Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, a Republican, finished first in a July poll that asked voters who would win in a three-way matchup with Ige and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. But Republicans rarely win in heavily Democratic Hawaii, and the poll was conducted before Ige’s surprising upset.
Hannemann ran as an Independent Party candidate in part to help him get this far. A former Democrat, he says his decision to make the switch came in part because he was having a tough time getting through the Democratic primary.
“I had to take a deep, long, hard look at whether in fact it made sense for me to keep running as a Democrat,” Hannemann said.
Now, his ability to pull votes is making the November race difficult to predict.
“The other big question is, who is Mufi Hannemann pulling votes from?” Ward asked. “You can make a case either way.”
Even the candidates themselves are reluctant to say who’s leading the pack.
As soon as Ige won the Democratic primary, the Republican Governors Association began sending out emails blasting his record as it took an interest in the state that could be up for grabs.
Aiona acknowledged the support of the GOP group but said it hasn’t donated money to his campaign.
Ige acknowledged that preliminary polls showed him behind, and he said he expects to be outspent by his opponents. He has spoken with the Democratic Governors Association, but he’s under the impression they have less money to spend, he said.
“We do know that there’s a huge challenge before us,” Ige said. “I feel confident that we’ll raise enough funds to tell our story.”
It’s not a new challenge for Ige. He was outspent 10-to-1 by Abercrombie in the primary and still managed to capture more than two times the votes.
Looking at the primary results, it would seem easy to conclude that Ige is a front-runner based on his capturing 157,000 votes, compared to Aiona’s nearly 42,000 and Hannemann’s 2,100 votes.
But that’s not how it works in Hawaii, where primary voters pull a Democratic, Republican or Independent party ballot and then have to choose from those party’s candidates in all the races.
“The way people pulled ballots is no indication of how they’re going to vote in the General Election,” Ward said. “It’s because of our open primary. That makes it so much fun.”
Aiona says history is on his side. It wasn’t too long ago that Republican former Gov. Linda Lingle was in office, with Aiona as her lieutenant governor.
“It’s do-able,” Aiona said. “And I feel that if I start worrying about things like that and saying ‘well, I could never win because I’m running as a Republican,’ I shouldn’t be in the race.”
One thing the candidates agree on: It’s going to be a tough race.
“That was the playoffs,” Hannemann said. “We’re on our way to play in the Super Bowl.”