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Challengers Dream Of Political Upsets

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” wrote the poet, “Man never is, but always to be blest.”

The poet was a 16th century English scribbler named Alexander Pope, and his poem, An Essay on Man. The lines are much quoted by English majors turned political junkies like … well, me. They come to mind when scanning the long list of hopefuls who filed to run for office in Hawaii’s Aug. 9 primary elections.

“Deluded,” sayeth an aging and increasingly cynical I.

“Republican Kawika Crowley beating incumbent Democrat Tulsi Gabbard in the 2nd Congressional District? Gimme a break! A Republican named Allen or a Green named Bonk taking out Calvin Say in state House District 20? No way. No can. No how!”

The numbers support this old man’s cynicism. In 2012, despite approval ratings that hovered in the 10 percent range, 90 percent of congressional incumbents won re-election. According to Politico, those numbers matched reelection rates in the world’s most rotten “banana republics.”

Hawaii’s legislative reelection rates are similarly discouraging. Incumbents almost always win. No matter how colorless, how blasé, how ridiculous they may be, incumbents survive everything save scandal.

Still, new candidates, old candidates and perennial candidates continue to offer themselves. For them, hope indeed springs eternal.

And occasionally their hearts skip a beat. The news from Virginia last Tuesday was one such occasion.

David Brat, a tea party-endorsed economics professor at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College, defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the latter’s bid for an eighth term in Congress.

No one expected Brat to win. Cantor enjoyed incumbency, a $5.6 million campaign war chest ($5.5 of which he spent in losing) and national name recognition for his long, loud and intractable opposition to anything proposed by President Barack Obama.

But far-right ideological purity reigns in the modern Republican Party, and at some point Cantor blinked on the issue of immigration reform — ever so quickly and ever so slightly, but sufficient for Brat to turn it into the charge that Cantor supported unconditional amnesty for illegal aliens. With that, Brat’s $120,000 in campaign spending negated Cantor’s $5.5 million.

Long shots, or seemingly no shots, have won in Hawaii as well — most famously in 1988 when Bernard Akana, an always underfunded, perennial Hawaii County mayoral candidate, upended the incumbent Dante Carpenter.

So a Brat or an Akana can inspire a smidgen of hope, but an open seat can make would-be office-holders downright fervid.

Thus the long list of candidates for the open 1st Congressional District seat: seven Democrats, two Republicans and two nonpartisan; or the 23rd North Shore Senate seat sought by three Republicans and a Republican-turned-Democrat.

The smell of blood can bring out a crowd as well. Consider Democrat Faye Hanohano, who represents Hawaii island’s 4th House District. Hanohano has known close races, in both primary and general elections. But two years ago she ran unopposed. This year, Hanohano suffers from self-inflicted wounds: Ill-considered remarks at a House committee hearing resulted in a media furor and a reprimand from House Speaker Joe Souki.

This year she faces four challengers in the Democratic primary. If Hanohano survives, a Republican awaits her in the general.

But for all who find opportunity and hope, in whatever amount, too many see none at all.

Six Democrats — one in the Senate, five in the House — face neither a primary nor a general election opponent.

And in far too many other districts, incumbents know only token opposition.

A vital democracy requires more than that. Hope springs eternal.