How Neil Abercrombie Lost Hawaii

David S. Chang CEO, Chang Holding Company
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Governor Neil Abercrombie was a Democrat governor in a heavily Democrat state. He had a healthy and growing economy, low unemployment, and claimed that the state budget was stronger than ever.

On top of that, he outraised his relatively unknown primary opponent ten-to-one, was endorsed by President Barack Obama (who is still very popular in Hawaii), and had Hawaii’s history of re-electing incumbents on his side.

Well, history is always remade, and it was remade Saturday in Hawaii’s primary election. Governor Neil Abercrombie became the first sitting governor in Hawaii’s history to lose a primary challenge.

State Senator David Ige beat Governor Abercrombie 66 percent to 31 percent, a whopping 35 percent difference. Abercrombie’s 40 years in political office came to an abrupt end with his early concession and first loss since 1986.

Although recent polls showed that Abercrombie was far behind, the margin of his loss was very telling. Even his extra TV and press time from hurricanes heading toward Hawaii didn’t provide a bump that it did for Obama’s reelection campaign during Hurricane Sandy.

In 2010, Abercrombie, who served as a state senator, state representative, Honolulu city councilmember, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, swept into the governor’s seat after beating Democrat Mayor Mufi Hannemann by 21 percent in the primary, and Republican Lieutenant Governor Duke Aiona by 22 percent in the general.

His 2010 “New Day in Hawaii” campaign was appealing to many and offered a promise of better days following years of economic hardship. Yet almost immediately, Abercrombie, began alienating the very voters that put him into office. Most politicians end up angering one group to please another. It’s very tough to anger everyone, but it seems Abercrombie did so.

It started with his push to tax seniors’ pensions, which was strongly opposed by the AARP and rejected soundly by the Hawaii Legislature in 2011. Video and clips circulated of the governor badgering lawmakers during a hearing on the subject and later, he was quoted stating that he will “roll over the AARP” should they get in his way next session.

Then, came his infamous response to questions from reporters about negative reactions to his proposal to reduce Medicare reimbursements for retired public workers. His response, directed at opponents of the proposal was simply, “I am the governor. I’m not your pal. I’m not your counselor. I am the governor. And I am determined to be truthful with everybody about what we have to do together to survive.” One prominent reporter turned the comment into a ringtone that could be downloaded on his newspaper’s blog.

And, there were a few other missteps. He dismissed the popular NFL Pro Bowl by calling it “so stupid” for the state to pay to have it in Hawaii, despite the fact that it directly generated more than $30 million in revenue. He refused to negotiate in good faith with some of Hawaii’s large government unions (Hawaii is the third most unionized state). He also proposed a constitutional amendment to allow public funds to be used to pay for private, non-religious preschools angering faith-based preschools and the Hawaii’s teachers’ union alike.

But, most importantly, he very publicly disregarded the last wishes of Hawaii’s beloved senior Senator Daniel Inouye who passed away in December 2012. Inouye had clearly stated in a letter that he wanted U.S. Representative Colleen Hanabusa to finish his term after his death. Instead of honoring those wishes, Abercrombie chose then-Lieutenant Governor Brian Schatz and to add insult to injury suggested that someone else made up the late senator’s request.

He later apologized to Senator Inouye’s widow Irene, but the damage was done. To many, his direct, blunt, and combative style went against Hawaii’s longstanding cultural norms. And, he was consistently rated as “the most unpopular governor” in the country despite the fact the state went for Obama by 70 percent in 2012.

His actions inflamed the state’s largest voting bloc, Asian Americans, and he greatly underestimated the lingering power of the “old guard” of the Democrat Party in Hawaii, which represents many of the Americans of Japanese Ancestry, more commonly known as the AJAs, who valued Senator Inouye for his service and his style of leadership.

In the end, his self-inflicted wounds were his own undoing. Abercrombie’s antagonistic ways pushed aside the very voters he needed. The vote for Ige was a vote against Abercrombie. Ige was not well-known outside of his district with one poll showing that Ige was unknown to 40 percent of Hawaii’s Democrats as earlier as February. Despite Ige’s low name recognition, his favorability rating was 59 percent compared to Abercrombie’s 43 percent.

Ige will now face Republican Duke Aiona, running for a second time for governor, and Mufi Hannemann, who recently left the Democratic Party to run as a member of the Independent Party. These two candidates can no longer run on the anti-Abercrombie sentiment and will now need to revise their strategies to run against a still relatively unknown Democrat in a heavily Democratic state.

David S. Chang is the past chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party, CEO of Chang Holding Company, Editor of the ArtofThinkingSMART.com, West Point Graduate, Combat Veteran, and is a Major in the Hawaii Army National Guard.