HILO — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s announcement late Thursday that she won’t seek reelection to Congress so she can focus on her presidential bid turns what early challenger Kai Kahele saw as a likely mano-a-mano contest into a political free-for-all.
But it’s up for debate whether this makes it more or less difficult for the relatively new state senator from Hilo to win the congressional seat. Both Gabbard and Kahele are Democrats.
The heavily Democratic 2nd Congressional District includes all of the state except for the urban core of Honolulu, so the seat will probably draw candidates from Oahu and the neighbor islands alike. No neighbor island resident has ever won a congressional seat.
Since Hawaii has only two congressional seats and the power of the incumbency is strong, candidates tend to flock to the relatively rare open-seat opportunities. Open seats in the 1st Congressional District drew 11 candidates in 2014 and 10 in 2016. The last time the District 2 seat was vacant, when Gabbard won in 2012, there were eight candidates.
Gabbard withdrawing will change everything, said Neal Milner, who taught political science at the University of Hawaii for 40 years.
“It’s a totally different race,” Milner said Friday. “Non-incumbency is the ultimate opportunity and the ultimate temptation.”
Milner declined to list possible candidates, but likely names started popping up early Friday among political prognosticators and on social media, including former state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chaired the powerful Ways and Means Committee, former Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, former Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin and former Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho.
Kahele, a state senator since 2016, doesn’t have the statewide name recognition of some of the heavyweights. But he announced early, accumulated almost half a million dollars in contributions and enlisted former governors John Waihee, Ben Cayetano and Neil Abercrombie as honorary campaign co-chairmen.
“I remain fully committed to my campaign to become Hawaii’s next congressman. While our opponent may change, the fundamentals of building our grassroots campaign will not,” Kahele said in a statement issued close to midnight Thursday. “When I announced my candidacy earlier this year, I pledged that I would take nothing for granted.”
Kahele, midway through a four-year term, isn’t risking his state seat to run for the federal one. Hawaii’s resign-to-run law doesn’t apply to those in state seats seeking federal ones, but candidates whose seats are up in 2020, such as all members of the state House and some senators, can run for only one seat.
Candidates can’t transfer money from their state campaign accounts to their federal ones, but they can return campaign checks and ask the donors to send it to the federal account. Unlike state candidates, however, federal candidates can’t accept money from corporations.
Presidential primaries are held in the spring. Hawaii’s deadline for registering to run in other races is Feb. 3-June 2.
Gabbard, announcing her decision in a Thursday evening email, thanked her supporters and urged them to support her presidential bid.
“Since 2012, the people of Hawaii’s second congressional district have voted resoundingly through four elections for me to be your voice in Washington. We have been through a lot and accomplished so much together,” she said. “From Pele’s eruptions in Puna, to historic flooding on Kauai, and the missile alert last year, which reawakened us all to the fact that our lives could end at any moment — and that we must do everything we can to prevent a nuclear holocaust.”
Kahele, who as recently as Wednesday has sent out campaign emails criticizing Gabbard for being on the campaign trail rather than “show up for duty and vote to protect us,” adopted a more conciliatory tone.
“Since announcing her presidential candidacy in January 2019, Congresswoman Gabbard has worked hard visiting towns and cities across the United States,” Kahele said. “This dedication, while worthy of admiration, meant that her congressional district was often left without a voice in Washington, D.C.”
Gabbard, considered a longshot in a crowded Democratic presidential primary, has perplexed some of her supporters by calling the Democratic Party process “rigged,” threatening to boycott a debate and developing relationships with authoritarian leaders in the Middle East, especially Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Gabbard’s congressional seat was in jeopardy had she kept that option open. Being an incumbent might have trumped all that, Milner said.
“As oddly as she’s behaved and as much she has ignored Hawaii,” Milner said, “incumbents have gotten away with a lot and still won their seats.”