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What You Need To Know About Hawaii’s Primary

Hawaii hasn’t elected a Republican to federal or statewide office since 2010 and hasn’t had a competitive general election for those offices since 2014. According to our 2022 midterm election forecast, that won’t change this year either: Democrats have a greater than 99 in 100 chance to win the Senate race, governor’s mansion and both U.S. House seats

But Hawaii has also elected some very different types of politicians during that span of Democratic dominance. The state’s U.S. senators, Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, talk and vote like progressives. But Rep. Ed Case is a Blue Dog Democrat who was one of the nine moderates to hold up President Biden’s ambitious spending plan last year in favor of passing an infrastructure bill first. And, of course, lest we forget: Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has taken conservative positions on abortion and LGBTQ rights and was one of only three Democrats to vote not to impeach then-President Donald Trump in 2019.

So the Aloha State is the perfect example of why we do so much primary coverage here at FiveThirtyEight. In one-party-rule states like Hawaii, the party in control tends to be very ideologically diverse, making primary elections extra important. And Hawaii’s 2022 primary election, taking place on Saturday, should be no exception, as Hawaii Democrats will have the opportunity to decide the ideological direction of two high-profile offices where the incumbent is not running for reelection.

Races to watch: 2nd Congressional District, governor

Polls close: 1 a.m. Eastern

First, seven Democrats are running to succeed the state’s term-limited governor. The clear front-runner is Lt. Gov. Josh Green, an emergency-room doctor whose proactive response to the COVID-19 pandemic made him a well-known and popular figure in the state. And according to a mid-July poll from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 65 percent of likely Democratic primary voters had a favorable opinion of Green. Green also enjoys the support of some of Hawaii’s largest unions, which is notable because Hawaii is the most heavily unionized state in the nation.

Business executive Vicky Cayetano isn’t letting Green off easy, though. The former president of the state’s largest laundry company has donated $1.5 million to her own campaign and raised almost as much as Green overall ($3.1 million to his $3.4 million). Cayetano has never run for office before, but she is married to former Gov. Ben Cayetano. She also co-chaired the 2020 campaign of Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, an independent who voted for Trump in 2016. For her part, Cayetano insists her “values absolutely align with the Democratic Party” but also describes herself as fiscally conservative, which aligns her with the pro-business wing of the party.

The third major candidate, Rep. Kai Kahele, has support from many progressive state legislators. He has decried the influence of money in politics, saying he would not accept donations above $100 and would rely on public financing for his campaign. However, Kahele bafflingly failed to file the paperwork necessary to qualify for public financing, and as a result, he is strapped for cash, raising only $179,000 for the cycle. In fairness, he did jump into the race late — just three months ago — but Kahele’s actions haven’t done anything to tamp down the criticism that his heart just isn’t in politics. In April, Honolulu Civil Beat reported that Kahele had not attended a vote at the U.S. Capitol in person since January and was still working part-time as a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines. (Though this initially raised questions of whether Kahele was violating House ethics rules by accepting outside income, he has said that his earnings from the airline fell within the legal limits.)

Several polls of the race show Green with a double-digit lead over both Cayetano and Kahele. The July Mason-Dixon survey, for example, gave Green 55 percent support, Cayetano 19 percent and Kahele 16 percent.

Kahele’s gubernatorial campaign has also opened up his 2nd Congressional District for the taking. Six Democrats are in the running, but the primary will probably come down to just two: former state Sen. Jill Tokuda and state Rep. Patrick Branco.

Tokuda is a veteran of Hawaii politics, having served 12 years in the state legislature and running twice for lieutenant governor. She’s also a close ally of Hirono and the progressive wing of the party; for example, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC has endorsed her. 

By contrast, Branco has served only one term in the state House and presents himself as a fresh face. He has also tried to turn his diversity into an asset: He would be Hawaii’s first openly gay member of Congress, first Hispanic member of Congress and, with Kahele’s departure, only Native Hawaiian member of Congress.

Tokuda has long been considered the front-runner in the race, however. She has outraised Branco $528,000 to $153,000, and a late-June poll from Honolulu Civil Beat and Hawaii News Now gave her a 31-percent-to-6-percent lead (albeit with 63 percent of likely voters undecided). However, a cadre of outside groups — from the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to the pro-cryptocurrency super PAC Web3 Forward and veterans group VoteVets — have spent more than $1 million supporting Branco or attacking Tokuda. One particularly controversial ad referenced the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and then pointed out that the National Rifle Association had endorsed Tokuda in a previous campaign. Without any more recent polls, we don’t know how much these ads have moved the needle.

Across Hawaii, vote centers close and ballots are due at 1 a.m. Eastern time on Sunday, so we won’t be covering the results live (that’s prime clubbing time!). Don’t worry, though — we’ll be back at the live-blogging routine for Tuesday’s primaries in Alaska and Wyoming.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.


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