The Meaning Of The State Primary

So what happened Aug. 11? A number of things, some definitive, some merely suggestive. Let’s start with the definitive.

Not many people voted. Despite a red-hot issue on Oahu – rail – only 42.8 percent of Hawaii’s registered voters went to the polls. Some of us who bathe in politics thought it would be more. We should have known better. Those who don’t play regularly in politics’ often muddy waters had to adjust to a primary date six weeks earlier than our traditional third Saturday in September.

Some were traveling, no doubt. Others were taking in the many pleasures of a beautiful late summer weekend. And devoted Republicans might have, at an admonition to vote, responded, “Why?”

To the extent that primary elections are for party members to pick their candidates for the general election, there was no good answer to that question. In 24 of the 76 House and Senate seats being contested this year, the Republican Party did not field a candidate. In the remaining 52 contests, only seven offered a choice of two candidates on the Republican side.

“Despite a red-hot issue on Oahu – rail – only 42.8 percent of Hawaii’s registered voters went to the polls.”

Meanwhile Linda Lingle and Charles Djou owned their Republican nominations for the United States Senate and the 1st District U.S. House of Representatives, respectively. And no Republican had a prayer in the 2nd District House race, where Tulsi Gabbard upset Mufi Hannemann in the Democratic primary. So there was no urgency for a Republican to vote at the top of the ticket either.

Still, that 42.8 percent primary turnout was the best since 1998 (50 percent then), and we can thank Ben Cayetano’s anti-rail crusade for the blip. But candidate Ben fell short of the 50 percent plus 1 vote total he badly wanted to win outright in the primary. He got a hefty 44.7 percent instead, just shy of 91,000 votes. His two rail supporters, Kirk Caldwell and Mayor Peter Carlisle, drew 107,000 votes – 54.6 percent of the total vote cast.

So that means the pro-rail, second-place Caldwell will carry the mantle and pick up Carlisle’s support and defeat the former governor in the general. Right?

Not necessarily. The general election vote will be significantly larger, and it will include considerably more Republicans coming to the polls in support of Lingle, Djou and Mitt Romney. The majority of them will undoubtedly vote for the anti-rail Cayetano. In them, Cayetano sees the 6 or 7 percent he needs to win.

He could get them. But homegrown President Barack Obama also is on that general election ballot, along with Democratic Party hopes to hold onto a vital Senate seat in the person of Mazie Hirono and two equally vital House seats for Colleen Hanabusa and Gabbard. Hawaii’s vaunted United Democratic Campaign will be running in high gear, and it always brings out more Democrats than anyone thought still resided in these isolated Islands. Democrats tend to favor rail, and therein lies Caldwell’s high hopes.

The two big losers of election night Aug. 11 were, of course, former Congressman Ed Case and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. Case was running his sixth race for public office in the past 12 years: one for governor, three for Congress, and two for the U.S. Senate. He lost four of those six races, including the last three.

Hannemann had lost two congressional races and a mayoral election before winning Honolulu Hale in 2004 and again in 2008. An ill-advised and unsuccessful run for governor in 2010 and anti-rail sentiment in the air at almost every polling place led to defeat for Hannemann, rail’s political architect.

It’s a shame. Case and Hannemann are intelligent men, capable of dealing with complex public policy issues. But they both may have outworn their political welcome.