Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, D, was overwhelmingly defeated Saturday by his primary challenger, state Sen. David Ige. He is the first sitting governor in the history of the state to fall in a primary.
With nearly all votes tallied Sunday, Ige led Abercrombie 66 percent to 31 percent. The drubbing was an unexpectedly sharp repudiation of the governor. Pre-election opinion polls showed Abercrombie trailing, but never by such a wide margin.
Ige’s resounding victory came in Hawaii’s most significant Democratic primary election in a generation. The battle for U.S. Senate between Sen. Brian Schatz, D, and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D, remained too close to call Sunday. Schatz led Hanabusa by fewer than 1,700 votes out of more than 230,000 cast.
It wasn’t clear when the outcome of the Hanabusa-Schatz race, a competitive and deeply personal clash between two competing wings of the Hawaii Democratic Party, would be known. The contest was in doubt partly because voting was roiled by Tropical Storm Iselle.
In two Big Island precincts where downed trees and road closures prevented people from casting ballots in person, voters were given the option of casting absentee ballots after the Saturday vote. State law says voting cannot be delayed by more than 21 days.
Both candidates encouraged their supporters to stay upbeat.
“This is not how we drew this thing up, but it’s a pretty good night for us,” Schatz told supporters.
Hanabusa said, “It is far from over.”
In the governor’s race, Ige, 57, begins the general election as the front-runner, given Hawaii’s long tradition of electing Democrats. But he faces a potentially challenging race.
In addition to Republican nominee and former lieutenant governor Duke Aiona, Ige also faces former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann, a well-known former Democrat who is running as the Hawaii Independent Party candidate. Because of his appeal to some Democrats, Hannemann could attract voters who would otherwise cast ballots for the Democratic nominee.
Ige celebrated his victory by reminding supporters how much of an underdog he once appeared to be.
“People told me I was crazy for giving up my seat in the state Senate, but I knew we needed change. They reminded me that no incumbent governor had ever lost a primary election. That changed tonight,” Ige told supporters.
The loss by Abercrombie, 76, probably marks the end of a political career spanning about four decades.
The approval rating for Abercrombie, a longtime liberal congressman who was elected to the state’s top job in 2010, has been very low during the past couple of years.
He pushed an unpopular pension reform program and clashed with organized-labor leaders. He also faced heat for appointing Schatz to the Senate in late 2012 instead of Hanabusa, after the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D, a political icon. Inouye wanted Hanabusa to succeed him.
Ige overcame Abercrombie’s heavy cash advantage. The governor outspent him by about 10 to 1.
The state legislator also overcame President Barack Obama’s influence. The president endorsed both Abercrombie and Schatz, early backers of his 2008 campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
To unify the party ahead of the November elections, Abercrombie appeared at Ige’s victory rally and vowed to support him.
The Senate contest has been even more bruising. Inouye’s allies bristled at Abercrombie’s decision not to appoint Hanabusa to the Senate. She joined the race in spring 2013. The congresswoman was backed by Inouye’s widow and former senator Daniel Akaka, D, who served alongside Inouye.
The primary brought to a head an intense and deeply personal campaign spanning more than a year. Schatz represented a liberal, younger, whiter coalition of Democrats. Hanabusa was the standard-bearer of the older, more conservative, more Asian American contingent.
Hanabusa ran ads down the stretch tying Schatz to Abercrombie. He was Abercrombie’s lieutenant governor before being appointed to the Senate.
Schatz consistently sought to cast himself as a more liberal candidate than Hanabusa. He also tried to distance himself from Abercrombie.
The senator outspent Hanabusa by about $1.5 million through late July. He was also backed by leading environmental groups, which spent money to help him.