State Senator David Ige
Governor Neil Abercrombie
Incumbents lose primaries for a variety of reasons—crime, scandal, or when they face unfamiliar voters. Maybe they get outspent, maybe a more powerful politician takes them on. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie can't point to any of those. Despite 40 years in elective office, and 10 times the cash of his previously unknown opponent, Abercrombie got crushed 2-to-1 in the Democratic primary. State Sen. David Ige's campaign went from obscurity to 68 percent of the vote in the biggest shocker in the history of Hawaii politics. What the hell happened?
As it turns out, quite a lot. It wasn't crime or scandal, but rather Abercrombie's ability to offend nearly every single group that had so strongly supported him in previous campaigns. Almost every action he took as governor drove some organization or demographic away. Liberals, moderates, retirees, teachers, the rich, the poor … the list goes on of every group that had some reason to vote against him by the end. All David Ige had to do was welcome those voters to his side. Head below the fold for an in-depth analysis of what not to do as governor of a solidly Democratic state.
Neil Abercrombie left a long career as congressman to become governor in 2010. Ige, too, had a long record in politics, serving in the state legislature since 1985. However, he had a quieter style, preferring to go for chairmanships of important committees rather than majority leader or senate president. His decision to challenge one of the most powerful and and well-funded incumbents was surprising, to say the least. Abercrombie ignored him, as most people did at first. Then the governor took the challenger seriously, and spent millions of dollars on ads that Ige's shoestring campaign could not afford to counter. And then at the end, he could only watch in surprise as Ige wound up winning by 36 points.
Why did this happen? National publications looking in to Hawaii speculated that it was because of race, that Abercrombie's white supporters were simply outnumbered by Ige's Asian voters. But this is foolish analysis, considering that the very same day Sen. Brian Schatz narrowly defeated Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the U.S. Senate primary. As the following map demonstrates, many voters were comfortable voting for both Ige and Schatz.
There was also a lot of speculation (again, mostly from outside of Hawaii) that Abercrombie was hurt by his appointment of Schatz instead of Hanabusa to the Senate. Again, not a convincing argument since Schatz won. As it turns out, the truth is far more mundane. Abercrombie's troubles were mostly a function of the budget crisis he inherited. No one wants to be in the position of having to both cut services and raise taxes, but the way he went about it managed to anger everyone. In the course of balancing the budget, Abercrombie:
Tried to tax the pensions of state retirees
This decision, more than any other, probably did the most damage. It happened early, it enraged a large and politically active Democratic group, and nobody forgot about it. As the legislature decided to reject this idea, it provided Ige with a powerful issue to run on.
Forced a painful contract on the public teachers' union
After having a Republican governor, teachers thought they now had an advocate in Abercrombie. Instead, he offered them more pay cuts, more tying of teacher pay to evaluation and student testing, and even support for diverting tax money to private pre-schools. It wasn't a difficult decision for the teachers union to endorse Ige, and this provided him crucial early credibility.
Proposed cutting Medicare reimbursements for public workers
Having already upset retirees, Abercrombie proceeded to anger current state workers too by targeting their health care.
Sided with developers
Like other groups, environmentalists thought they had an ally in Abercrombie. But after becoming governor, he managed to enrage them as well. The fact that these developers then turned around and showered Abercrombie with campaign contributions only solidified this opposition.
And finally, Abercrombie just was abrasive and confrontational every step of the way. He said stuff like, "I am not your pal" to public workers during negotiations. He offended football fans by questioning the amount of money spent on the Pro Bowl. He first agreed to several debates with Ige, and then canceled some at the last moment. And although voters didn't seem upset over Schatz's appointment, Abercrombie stepped in it by suggesting that the late and revered Sen. Daniel Inouye's deathbed letter requesting Abercrombie appoint Hanabusa to the Senate wasn't even real.
With all these self-inflicted injuries, Abercrombie could have tried to win by going negative, hard. But by the time the campaign was in full swing, Abercrombie still had nothing to attack Ige on. So the governor's ads never targeted Ige, preferring to focus on his own accomplishments. As such, the election turned into a referendum on the incumbent rather than a real contrast between two candidates. Ige went into the election with only positives. Abercrombie went in with everyone focusing on his negatives. Ward Research's final poll found Abercrombie's approval rating at a terrible 38-58. Ige was at 57-15! Ige didn't need to offer specific alternatives to Abercrombie's decisions, all he had to say was "I won't do that!"
One could argue that Abercrombie did what was required, and was unfairly punished for it. One could also argue that this all turned out for the best, with Abercrombie making the unpopular yet necessary decisions to fix the budget, and then stepping aside for someone untainted. But it didn't have to be this way. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California also inherited a disaster of a budget when he took office, and had to make some hard choices. But Brown managed to stay overwhelmingly popular, and is now heading for a record-setting victory this November. As Ige claimed in his campaign, Abercrombie simply didn't have the leadership, the trust, or the ability to govern effectively. Ige's campaign message was simply "I can do better," and he will have the chance to prove it now.