HONOLULU — There’s only one major candidate in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, virtually guaranteeing he will be sworn in as Hawaii’s newest congressman in January.
Kai Kahele, a Democrat, is so far ahead of everyone else that he has been spending the final four months before this week’s primary on active duty helping the Hawaii National Guard respond to the coronavirus pandemic instead of campaigning.
“Kai Kahele will probably just walk right in to Congress,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii.
The state’s Aug. 8 primary is being conducted by mail. Ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on election day to be counted.
In Hawaii, Democratic Party primaries for open congressional seats are usually packed with political veterans aiming to move up the ranks and ambitious upstarts eager to make their mark.
Because incumbents are rarely defeated and the state hasn’t sent a Republican to Congress in a regular election in over 30 years, winning the Democratic nomination is like securing a renewable pass to Washington.
Kahele got a head start fundraising and gathering party elder support by declaring in December 2018 that he would run for Gabbard’s seat while she campaigned for president in faraway Iowa and New Hampshire.
The state senator argued Gabbard was neglecting her constituents while pursuing the White House, striking a nerve that unleashed a gush of donations. He also raked in money from non-Hawaii residents unhappy with Gabbard positions like her past opposition to gay rights and her decisions to travel to Syria and meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Kahele became the front-runner when Gabbard later said she wouldn’t seek reelection so she could focus on her ultimately unsuccessful presidential bid.
The 46-year-old has been a state senator since 2016 when he was appointed to serve the remainder of his late father’s term after his father died. He was elected later that year for the first time.
He’s a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines who also flies C-17 jets as a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard. He’s married to a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant and has three daughters.
If elected, Kahele would be the third Native Hawaiian in Congress. The first was Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, a Hawaiian prince who was a delegate when Hawaii was a U.S. territory, and the second was the late Sen. Daniel Akaka, who left office in 2013.
He’s an advocate of Medicare-for-all and fought in the state Legislature to expand health care facilities in the town of Hilo, which he represents. He supports the idea of a “Green New Deal” to address climate change and help Hawaii meet its clean energy goals.
Campaign manager Kehau Watson, who spoke on Kahele’s behalf because his Guard duties prevent him from campaign activities, said he has always been interested in supporting the rights of “all marginalized and oppressed people.”
“So I think he will not only look to pursue Native Hawaiian rights on their own but within a continuum of what will social justice mean going forward,” she said.
Beth Fukumoto, who lost to current U.S. Rep. Ed Case in a 2018 Democratic primary featuring six major candidates for Hawaii’s other congressional seat representing Honolulu, said Kahele’s early momentum, name recognition and fundraising likely deterred others from jumping in. Case faces token opposition as he seeks reelection.
Plus, Fukumoto noted it’s difficult to campaign in Hawaii’s second congressional district which is dotted with small communities scattered across multiple islands. The start of the pandemic only complicated matters.
“Just the geography of it and the diversity of it would take a lot,” said Fukumoto, a former state representative. “And that’s really hard when you shouldn’t be knocking on anybody’s door and you shouldn’t be gathering.”
Jill Tokuda, a former state senator who narrowly lost the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor two years ago, considered running. Financial considerations like being able to support her family and simultaneously run an expensive political campaign helped convince her not to. “This was just not my next race. There will be another one,” Tokuda said.
Both Tokuda and Fukumoto said the possibility that Gabbard might change her mind at the last minute and run for re-election after all also likely chilled interest from candidates.
Fukumoto said close contests keep voters engaged and interested. A lack of them depresses turnout, as voters focus on the notion that elections are pre-determined even though lower level races are frequently decided by slim margins, she said.
“It does a disservice to the state to not have competitive races,” said Fukumoto, who is now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. “I think competitive elections make for a better democracy.”