HONOLULU — Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie was unseated in a stunning primary-election defeat Saturday after a fellow Democrat, state Sen. David Ige, easily coasted to victory on his promise to bring a less combative leadership style in a race that divided Democrats.
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.”
In a concession speech Saturday night, Abercrombie reminisced about his long political career and pledged to campaign vigorously for Ige against a Republican challenger.
“For 40 years going back to 1974 — really at about this time — every waking breath that I’ve taken, every thought that I had before I slept was for Hawaii,” Abercrombie said. “It was for you. For all the brothers and sisters over these past 40 years that have given me the privilege and the honor to serve Hawaii’s people.”
Ige, 57, said he offered an alternative for voters who are unhappy with Abercrombie’s proposal last year to raise several taxes and a style that is perceived as confrontational. He 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.”
His win comes despite being dramatically outspent by Abercrombie, who spent $4.9 million through July 25 to Ige’s $447,000.
The crowd was jubilant at Ige’s election night party, where a Hawaiian band entertained supporters, including two former governors, George Ariyoshi, who served from 1974 to 1986, and Ben Cayetano, who served from 1994 to 2002.
“This is really about the younger generation and the future. He’s given people hope,” Cayetano said of Ige. “That’s what’s been missing.”
Abercrombie’s four years in office are the shortest of any of Hawaii’s seven governors. William Francis Quinn, a Republican who served from 1957 to 1962 territorial, then state, governor when Hawaii became a state in 1959, is the only other governor not to win a second term.
The 76-year-old Abercrombie has clashed with Democrats in the state Legislature, but he offered calm leadership for the state as Tropical Storm Iselle battered the islands this week and another storm threatened to cause damage.
Tom White, a U.S. Navy retiree, said he voted for Ige because he believes Abercrombie’s nine years in Congress made him too combative, although it felt like “rolling the dice.”
“There’s been so much friction between Abercrombie, the Legislature and communities,” White said. “He’s too rough around the edges. We can’t have one guy blow up everything.”
Abercrombie had promised to push the state to provide $100 million to address homelessness by adding more affordable housing. Ige said he would collect $450 million in unpaid taxes.
Voter turnout in the aftermath of the tropical storm was unknown, although about half of Hawaii voters typically cast early ballots. Nearly 160,000 voters turned in absentee ballots by mail and at walk-in sites in the two weeks before the primary, up more than 12 percent compared with the 2012 primary. That year, 49 percent of voters cast early absentee ballots.
Elections officials postponed voting in two precincts on the Big Island, saying roads were too damaged for voters to safely get to the polls. About 8,000 affected registered voters will be able to cast absentee ballots later.
Ige will face Republican James “Duke” Aiona, the state’s former lieutenant governor who lost to Abercrombie in 2010, and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, of the Independent Party, in November.