What you need to know about Hawaii's primary election

·6 min read

Hawaii residents will head to the polls on Saturday, with contentious Democratic House and governor primaries on the ballot.

With a largely tourism-based economy still reeling from the pandemic, a state at the forefront of climate issues like sea levels and some of the highest housing costs in the country, the economy remains a top issue at the minds of voters.

With current Governor David Ige term-limited, seven Democrats are vying to become his likely successor. One candidate is current Rep. Kaiali'i Kahele, which opens up the state's second district for a competive primary.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz and first district Rep. Ed Case are both up for reelection, though neither face a competitive primary or general election.

Hawaii leans strongly Democratic, meaning that once primary elections are settled for major seats, those candidates are the likely winners in November against Republican opponents. The last Republican to serve in Congress from Hawaii left office in 2011.

Here's everything you need to know on the races to watch and the issues at the top of Hawaii voters' minds.

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Who is running for governor?

Seven Democrats are competing in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, with leading candidates Vicky Cayetano, Joshua Green and Kahele.

Kahele currently represents the state's 2nd Congressional District, which includes more rural parts of Oahu along with the rest of the state's islands of Kauai, Maui, Moloka'i and the "Big Island" of Hawaii.

Cayetano co-founded and was CEO of the state's largest laundry company for 34 years. She's married to former Gov. Ben Cayetano and is running on a business-driven platform.

Green is the current lieutenant governor and an emergency room physician. Based on polling he's seen as the frontrunner.

Competition among the three has been heated. During a debate on July 21, Kahele accused Green of profiting off the pandemic, as he's touted his COVID-19 response as lieutenant governor in his gubernatorial campaign. In turn, Green called Kahele a "slum lord" in reference to properties he owns under an LLC in Tennessee.

A Honolulu Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now Poll in July put Green in a commanding lead, with 48% of voters saying they'd support him, 16% backing Kahele and 15% for Cayetano. One in five voters said they were unsure who they'd be supporting.

Green is also outraising other candidates. He raised $201,870 in July, while in the same period Cayetano loaned her campaign $715,000 -- nearly ten times what she brought in with donations that month. But Cayetano outspent Green in July by nearly $500,000.

Kahele has pledged to only accept donations of $100 or less, and spent $79,000 in July.

Other candidates are David "Duke" Bourgoin, Richard Kim, Clyde Lewman and Van Tanabe.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige is term-limited, opening up a contentious race for his likely successor.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige is term-limited, opening up a contentious race for his likely successor.

Who is running for Congress?

While Case is the clear favorite to keep his seat in the 1st Congressional District, the 2nd is a toss-up between Jill Tokuda and Patrick Pihana Branco that's seen record amounts of outside money and a heated attack.

Businesswoman Jill Tokuda served in the State Senate from 2006 to 2018.

Patrick Pihana Branco is a newcomer to Hawaii politics compared to Tokuda, elected as a state representative in 2020.

A Civil Beat/ Hawaii News Now poll in late June showed Tokuda with a clear edge over Branco, 31% to 6%. But Branco supporters have capitalized on the 63% of voters still undecided between the two.

Branco is supported by several PACs that have put over $1.2 million towards the race. On Tokuda's behalf, fhe Congressional Progressive Caucus has spent $179,000, along with $20,000 from the Medicare for All PAC founded by U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

Branco's PAC-funded ads have targeted an endorsement Tokuda received in 2012 from the National Rifle Association and criticized donations she's received from Monsanto Co.

Many of Tokuda's former colleagues in the statehouse have backed her legislative record on firearms and said that Branco is misleading voters on her record.

"It’s a shame my opponent can’t generate enough support here in Hawaiʻi to run an honorable, Hawaiʻi-based campaign and is turning to outside, dark money to compete," Tokuda said in a statement on her website.

The nearly $1.4 million spent from special interest groups is the most in a Hawaii House race since 2010, Honolulu Civil Beat reported.

What are the top issues?

Affordable housing

The three major Democratic gubernatorial candidates all have plans for affordable housing, as Hawaii has the highest cost of living of any U.S. state.

Cayetano has proposed a five-year plan to ramp up affordable rentals. Green has a 10-point housing plan and would immediately issue an executive order to address housing if elected. Kahele wants to fund affordable housing construction through tax-exempt bonds and bond activity caps.

Tourism pressures

With an economy largely based on tourism, Hawaii has some of the highest unemployment levels in the country, which soared during the pandemic due to business closures and travel restrictions.

Branco has made diversification of Hawaii's economy a top issue and said he will work to bolster the state's agricultural, energy and cyber security industries, according to his campaign website.

Climate change

Rising air and ocean temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns and rising sea levels have all put the Aloha State on the frontlines of the climate crisis in the U.S.

By 2030 the state will need to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half in order to stay on track to go carbon neutral by 2045.

Green has proposed cutting the $3 billion currently spent on oil and putting it toward renewable energy.

Tokuda said she supports the Biden adminstration's efforts to have the Department of Defense lead in renewable energy, seeing the issue as a matter of national security.

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Thirty Meter Telescope

The major Democratic gubernatorial candidates are divided on addressing the Thirty Meter Telescope, a scientific telescope in construction that has faced controversy and protest for its location on Mauna Kea, a sacred spot to native Hawaiians.

Cayetano supports the completion of the telescope, Kahele said he opposes the plans as they currently stand and Green said he's disappointed in the handling of the project but would support efforts "if they were done wtih respect between cultures."

Protest against the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, on July 15, 2019.
Protest against the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, on July 15, 2019.

Recreational marijuana

Gubernatorial candidates are also divided on the legalization of marijuana.

Kahele and Green both said they support legalizing cannabis, with Kahele voting in favor of decriminalization at the federal level in Congress.

Cayetano said she does not support legalization.

When is the primary election?

Hawaii residents will vote on Saturday, August 13. Polls close at 6 p.m. Hawaii time, midnight Eastern.

As of August 9, more than 186,000 Hawaii voters have turned in their ballots — about 35% of all 730,000 ballots sent out, Honolulu Civil Beat reported.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Here's what you need to know about Hawaii's primary eleciton