It may be a midterm election year, but Hawaii’s political players still think voter turnout could be pretty good.
Democratic voters have two big races in which they’ll be casting their ballots in August, for a gubernatorial candidate and in the U.S. Senate primary. Both are hotly contested races, University of Hawaii Political Science Professor Emeritus Rick Castberg said.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is challenging U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz for the Senate seat.
“There is little difference” between the two candidates, Castberg said, at least when it comes to their political positions. “They both have name recognition.”
Hawaii County Democratic Party Chairman David Tarnas said he can see some differences between the two.
“The ability to distinguish between the two of them on policy issues is subtle,” Tarnas said.
That leaves voters asking themselves other questions about the candidates.
“Who can represent me the best?” Tarnas said. “Who do I trust to represent me the best? They’ll be looking at those intangibles.”
Hanabusa faced some criticism many years ago, but Castberg said it was unlikely most voters remember much about that.
Castberg said he hopes to not see much dirty campaigning this year.
“People resent that,” he said.
One candidate in Hawaii’s recent history who has tried some mudslinging is former Democrat Mufi Hannemann. Gov. Neil Abercrombie bested Hannemann in the 2010 Democratic primary, and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard defeated him in the 2012 primary for the seat she now holds. Castberg noted that Hannemann hasn’t won state office, possibly because he uses those techniques. Hannemann is back for a third round this year; He’ll appear on the gubernatorial ticket as an independent.
That race will be a three-way contest that will pit Hannemann against Republican former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona and either Abercrombie or David Ige, a Democratic challenger. Abercrombie has the strength of the incumbency working for him, Castberg said.
Tarnas said Abercrombie and Ige again do have subtly different policy approaches, but are both strong candidates. In that race, Tarnas said many voters are telling him their decision is coming down to which candidate’s style they prefer.
The Senate and governor races are “magnet” races, Tarnas said, ones that may draw voters to the polls this year.
Castberg said he sees few big issues coming up this year.
“Economy is always an issue,” he said.
The price of energy and getting more affordable renewable energy, economic development and education are the top issues, locally, Tarnas said.
Hawaii voters want “economic development that makes sense for the island,” Tarnas said. “People are looking at forestry, open ocean aquaculture, astronomy.”
At the Hawaii County Democratic Party Convention, party members selected a position that supported more protections for “origin agricultural” labeling, Tarnas said. They went so far as to say they were in favor of only allowing a product to use Hawaii in its marketing campaigns and branding only if at least 51 percent of the product is from within the state, he said.
Hawaii Republican Party Chairwoman Pat Saiki said another issue, related to the economy, comes up frequently.
“As I talk to my candidates at the federal or state level, the main concern they have is the cost of living,” Saiki said.
She recommends Republican candidates here support two things that would lower that cost of living. One is exempting food from the state’s General Excise Tax. Two is exempting Hawaii and other noncontiguous states from the Jones Act, which requires all commercial ships operating in U.S. waters be built in the United States, owned by U.S. companies and have American crews.
“American ship owners could purchase foreign vessels and man them with American crews,” Saiki said. “That would be such a relief to our people.”
She too would like to see plenty of voters come to the polls.
“The difference that could be made this year is tremendous,” she said.
Castberg said the County Council race in District 6, which runs from Puna through South Kona, could be especially interesting. In that race, former Hawaii Tribune-Herald Publisher Jim Wilson has a lot of name recognition, but no experience in politics. Another candidate in that race, Maile Medeiros David, who is currently the county’s deputy clerk, has more political experience, Castberg said. Richard Abbett is also running in that race.
Three state Senators are up for election this year. In Senate District 4, former Hawaii County Mayor Lorraine Inouye is challenging incumbent Sen. Malama Solomon, while former radio station owner Wendell Kaehuaea is running against incumbent Sen. Gilbert Kahele. Kona Sen. Josh Green is unopposed in the primary election. All of those candidates are Democrats.
A few of the state representative races have primary contests. In District 2, in Hilo, Edwin Miranda is challenging incumbent Clift Tsuji on the Democratic ticket. Five candidates are taking on Rep. Faye Hanohano in District 4. Hanohano faced a reprimand earlier this year for racially loaded comments she made about testifiers in front of a committee on which she serves. Democratic challengers in that race are Leilani Bronson-Crelly, Brian Jordan, Julia Peleiholani and Joy Sanbeunaventura.
Rep. Richard Creagan, a Democrat Abercrombie appointed last year to fill a seat vacated mid-term in state House District 5, is facing Kona resident Gene Leslie for the Democratic nomination.
The Republican and Democrat parties both have a contested primary for House District 6. On the GOP ticket, Roy Ebert is running again, this year against Kelly Valenzuela. On the Democrat ticket, it’s incumbent Nicole Lowen against Kalei Akaka, who lost the seat to Lowen in 2012.
All voters can cast their ballots for several Office of Hawaiian Affairs races.
A few things won’t be on the primary ballots. For one, the mayor and the prosecuting attorney aren’t on this year’s ballot. They’ll be back in 2016, the same year as the next presidential election. There’s also no election this year in state Senate District 2, a seat currently held by Democrat Russell Ruderman.
Voters won’t voice their opinions on any proposed charter amendments until November. The Hawaii County Council is working on at least one amendment for the general election.
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