At the stroke of midnight Eastern time on Friday, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard announced she would not seek re-election to the House next year but would forge ahead with her long shot campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.
State law would have permitted Gabbard to run for both posts simultaneously, but just a week after she launched her bid for the White House, she earned a challenge from state Sen. Kai Kahele, who made the most of the fact that Gabbard was neglecting her home state and spending all her time in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Kahele, a combat pilot with the Hawaii Air National Guard who flew dozens of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, had already raised half a million dollars from progressives fed up with Gabbard's loathing for the Democratic Party and would have presented a tough obstacle in next August's primary.
Gabbard's career in public office began in 2002 with her election to the state House. There, in just a single term, she made a name for herself as an anti-gay rights activist. At one particularly notable hearing in 2004, Gabbard declared, "To try to act as if there is a difference between 'civil unions' and same-sex marriage is dishonest, cowardly, and extremely disrespectful to the people of Hawaii. As Democrats we should be representing the views of the people, not a small number of homosexual extremists." (Gabbard's father had led the successful drive to ban same-sex marriage in the state in 1998, an effort he enlisted his whole family in, including Tulsi, then age 17.)
Gabbard soon left the legislature after enlisting in the Hawaii Army National Guard and served as a medic in Iraq. After a second deployment, this time in Kuwait, Gabbard returned home and won a seat on the Honolulu City Council in 2010. The following election cycle, after Rep. Mazie Hirono announced she'd seek the U.S. Senate seat left open by Dan Akaka's retirement, Gabbard ran to succeed her, whereupon she tried to "clean up" her ugly record on gay rights and reproductive rights.
Not only had Gabbard opposed marriage equality, but she admitted that she had also opposed abortion rights—a confession she made after a surprising endorsement by EMILY's List cast a harsh spotlight on her views. Even then, though, her evolution was minimal at best: She came out in favor only of civil unions, not full marriage rights, and in a 2016 interview, she told the online magazine OZY that her "personal views" opposing abortion and gay marriage "haven't changed."
Nonetheless, she ran up a convincing 55-34 win in the primary over Mufi Hannemann, who had been mayor of Honolulu and also had a lousy record as a progressive. Gabbard then easily won the general election in the solidly blue 2nd District, which takes in Hawaii's more rural "Neighbor Islands"—so called because they're the "neighbors" of Oahu, which is home to Honolulu, the state's capital and by far its largest city. (Part of Oahu is also in the 2nd.)
For years after, Gabbard never drew a serious opponent, though she did her best to court one. During her time in Congress, Gabbard grew notorious for regularly siding against her own party in high-profile ways that made her a darling of conservative media.
Among other things, Gabbard cozied up to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on a secret trip to Syria in 2017; cultivated violent Hindu nationalists in India; was one of the first (and only) Democrats to meet with Donald Trump after he won in 2016; refused to sign a letter from 169 House Democrats denouncing Trump for appointing white nationalist Steve Bannon to a White House job; carried water for Republican megadonor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson by introducing his bill to outlaw online gambling; refused to sign on to an assault weapons ban in 2015; attacked Barack Obama for refusing to use the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism"; and voted to make it all but impossible for Syrian refugees to settle in the U.S.
Gabbard also gained a reputation for putting self-promotion ahead of her job. In one egregious incident in 2014, she skipped a congressional field hearing in Honolulu on the crisis at the Veterans Administration (despite being a veteran herself) in order to shoot a surfing video with Yahoo News. After ignoring reporters' queries for four days, Gabbard claimed she had missed the hearing because "an earlier commitment ran very late." Only months later, after the surfing feature was published, did she finally tell the truth.
That absenteeism was a cornerstone of Kahele's argument against Gabbard, but now he'll face a very different sort of race. Other Democrats are sure to join, though the filing deadline isn't until June, so it may take a while for the field to take shape in this newly open seat. But whatever unfolds, Kahele will begin with a head start: Since kicking off his campaign, he's been able to build up a $371,000 war chest, and he's also earned goodwill for being the one guy willing to take on Gabbard.
Anyone else entering the competition now will necessarily look as though they were waiting for an easier fight, though that may or may not prove a hindrance to voters. Kahele, though, has demonstrated that he's no pushover, and in a statement following Gabbard's announcement, he affirmed that he "remain[s] fully committed" to the race.