HONOLULU (AP) — In a stunning defeat for an incumbent, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie was unseated by a fellow Democrat in Saturday’s primary election, as voters chose state Sen. David Ige as their nominee in one of two marquee races that have divided the party.
Abercrombie had tried to hold onto his seat while disgruntled voters turned their allegiance to Ige, who promised to bring a less confrontational political style. Voters rewarded Ige with a decisive victory.
In the U.S. Senate race, incumbent Democrat Brian Schatz also faces a threat from fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who believes the seat should have been passed on to her when her mentor, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, died in 2012. Schatz took a slim lead late Saturday, but the race remained too close to call.
The winners of each race will face Republicans and independent candidates in the November general election, but such campaigns are often longshots in heavily Democratic Hawaii.
Abercrombie, who has spent nearly 40 years in Hawaii politics, is the first Hawaii governor to lose to a primary challenger and only the second not to win re-election. His defeat comes after President Barack Obama last month urged residents of his native state to back Abercrombie, invoking the Hawaiian word for family in a radio ad, saying Abercrombie is “like ohana to me.”
Abercrombie conceded the race to supporters, calling his four years as governor “a singular honor,” then headed to Ige’s election night party, where the two men, both adorned with leis, joined hands and raised their arms in the air on stage together.
“For 40 years going back to 1974 — really at about this time — every waking breath that I’ve taken, every thought that I had before I slept was for Hawaii,” he told supporters. “It was for you. For all the brothers and sisters over these past 40 years that have given me the privilege and the honor to serve Hawaii’s people.”
Ige offered an alternative for voters who were unhappy with Abercrombie’s proposal last year to raise several taxes and his political style. His victory comes despite being outspent by about 10 to 1: Abercrombie tore through $4.9 million through July 25 compared with Ige’s $447,000.
Challenging the incumbent Democrat may have hurt Ige’s ability to fundraise. But Ige, a respected state senator who served in the Legislature for 28 years, felt Hawaii was headed in the wrong direction, and that too many of the governor’s decisions were dividing communities, he said.
“There were many in the party that did not want me to run,” Ige said in a recent interview. “They felt like the incumbent should be supported.”
As the final days of campaigning drew to a close, a pair of big storms thrashed toward the islands, presenting an opportunity for Abercrombie to show a strong emotional connection to voters. His calm demeanor as Tropical Storm Iselle thrust through the islands was a contrast to his usual style.
Many Ige voters said they weren’t necessarily taken in by Ige — they just didn’t like Abercrombie.
“There’s been so much friction between Abercrombie, the Legislature and communities,” said Tom White, 62, who’s retired from the U.S. Navy and voted for Ige Saturday. “He’s too rough around the edges.”
Voter John Lacy said he picked Ige on Saturday because he was disappointed in Abercrombie’s proposal for taxing pensions.
“I think he’s a much more thoughtful individual,” Lacy, a retired computer executive who lives in Honolulu, said of Ige.
Others had credited Abercrombie for making tough choices to get the state out of a recession.
“He’s been a representative in one way or another my whole life, and I think he’s very effective,” said Colleen Heyer, 49, a Honolulu homemaker who voted for Abercrombie.
Some also believed Abercrombie’s decision to appoint Schatz to the U.S. Senate seat after Inouye’s death was disrespectful to the World War II hero. Before he died, Inouye told Abercrombie that he wanted him to appoint Hanabusa to his seat.
Hanabusa has attracted many of Inouye’s supporters, though Schatz has outspent Hanabusa by more than $1 million and his ads have dominated the airways.
Hanabusa evoked Inouye’s name throughout the campaign, aligning herself with the traditional Hawaii political establishment, while Schatz touted his endorsement from Obama.
“Colleen is riding on the backs of old senior Democrats,” said Andrew Tomoso, 53, who works in the surfing and film industries and voted for Schatz on Saturday. “She’s been trying to put Schatz down on his record, which I think is old-school. We need new blood.”
Associated Press writers Marco Garcia, Lorin Eleni Gill, Kalani Takase, Manuel Valdes and Juliet Williams contributed to this report.
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