Tulsi Gabbard — upset winner in a lopsided victory (54 vs. 33.6 percent) over conservative Democrat Mufi Hannemann — is riding a wave of political celebrity she doesn’t even need. She’s considered a shoo-in for the 2nd Congressional District seat, though she still faces Republican challenger Kawika Crowley in November.
Gabbard, 31, had served just one year in the state House of Representatives and two on the Honolulu City Council before she entered the Congressional race as a distinct underdog. Hannemann’s yawning lead narrowed as Gabbard hit the campaign trail, articulating a down-to-earth vision that includes affordable health care, environmental sensitivity and concern for the middle class. Her call for gay rights and an immediate end to the Afghanistan war — a commitment fueled by her own Middle East combat experience with the Hawaii National Guard — apparently resonated with voters.
Constituents of the district, which include rural Oahu and all of the Neighbor Islands, may also have warmed to Gabbard because she’s a fresh face, but hold similar views as Democrat Mazie Hirono, who currently holds the seat.
Mazie Hirono, who trounced former Congressman Ed Case in the Democratic primary (56.8/40.3), will square off against Republican Linda Lingle for the Senate seat opened by Daniel Akaka’s retirement. Hirono is playing up the strategic political importance of the race. It’s one of four the GOP has targeted to seek control of the Senate, and this has worked to pump money into Lingle’s campaign. Lingle, who is portraying herself as an Independent, already has raised $4.4 million, about half of it from out-of-state, compared to Hirono’s $3.4 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The two women faced off once before, in the 2002 governor’s race, and Lingle won, going on to serve two terms. Now Lingle has to defend a record that is still fresh in the minds of the electorate and includes such unpopular initiatives as teacher furloughs and the Superferry. Perhaps that’s why Hirono, who has picked up endorsements from environmental and women’s groups, launched her campaign against Lingle by calling for debates around the state.
Hirono also has gained support from Hawaii’s broad slate of Democratic politicians, and is likely to pick up additional momentum riding President Obama’s coattails.
That could similarly benefit Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a liberal Democrat who is fending off an attempt by Republican Charles Djou to regain the 1st Congressional District seat he lost two years ago.
For both Hannemann and Case, the primary results raise tough questions about their political viability. Case has now lost three major elections in a row, while Hannemann, a failed candidate in the 2010 governor’s race, was rebuffed by Hawaii voters for the second time in two years, despite an outpouring of support from unions and other Democratic strongholds.