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Tulsi Gabbard’s seat is up for grabs in Hawaii’s congressional primary

Hawaii is piloting its first all-mail election for the August 8 primary.

Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The time has come to find out who’s likely to replace Tulsi Gabbard in representing Hawaii in Congress.

On Saturday, August 8, Hawaii will hold primaries for both of its congressional seats. The First Congressional District, currently represented by Democrat Ed Case, is uncontested in the Democratic primary and likely a safe seat come November, as Hawaii is a reliably blue state. But the race to take over Gabbard’s seat in Hawaii’s Second Congressional District is a bit more interesting, with four candidates in the mix — though there’s a clear frontrunner.

Gabbard, 39, has served the Second District since 2013. She ran for president in the 2020 Democratic primary and announced in October 2019 that she wouldn’t seek reelection to Congress, saying she was “fully committed to my offer to serve” in the White House. That didn’t work out — she failed to gain traction and suspended her bid in March — but she still won’t be on the ballot.

Even before Gabbard said she wouldn’t seek reelection, her situation looked precarious. Hawaii state Sen. Kai Kahele announced plans to run for her seat in January 2019, well before Gabbard said she was leaving Congress, and the challenge was clearly formidable.

From that January to October 2019, Kahele gained a notable fundraising advantage over Gabbard and getting traction in the polls, John Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said in an email to Vox. “With the incumbent out of the picture, he’s now the clear frontrunner,” Coleman wrote.

As the Hawaii Tribune Herald noted, Kahele’s lead appears to be so solid that he’s spent the last several months on active duty as a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard, helping with the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kahele, 46, is a combat veteran who served deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s also a father of three who was appointed to the Hawaii State Senate by Democratic Gov. David Ige in 2016 after the death of his father, late state Sen. Gil Kahele. He won that year’s regular election, as well as 2018’s. Currently, he’s the majority floor leader of the legislative body.

Kahele has picked up multiple high-profile endorsements, including those of US Sen. Brian Schatz, the First District’s Case, and former Govs. Neil Abercrombie and Ben Cayetano. Those endorsements, Coleman noted, come from different factions of Hawaii’s Democratic Party: “Abercrombie is more representative of the ascendant, white liberal bloc, while Cayetano is from the old Asian guard,” he said.

Noelle Famera, an entrepreneur who’s new to politics, is also running in the Second District. She’s a proponent of universal basic income and has picked up some local endorsements. Two other candidates, Brenda Lee and Brian Evans, round out the full Democratic primary slate.

There are multiple candidates running in the Republican primary to take Gabbard’s seat, but their chances are slim come November — a Republican has never been elected to represent the Second District.

Hawaii’s First District has had the rare Republican winner in the past, but the district is considered reliably blue, even if there are five candidates running in Saturday’s GOP primary. Case’s 2018 primary race was pretty close — it was the first time he was elected to the seat, and he won a plurality of the vote, not a majority. He’s seen as a moderate, and had a progressive challenged him, the primary could have been interesting. Consider what happened to Reps. Eliot Engel, Dan Lipinski, and William Lacy Clay, all of whom lost to progressive primary challengers this election cycle.

Hawaii takes its first pass at all-mail voting

Although the electoral outcome of Saturday’s primaries in Hawaii might be rather predictable, there’s another reason to pay attention to them: It’s the first time the state’s vote-by-mail system will be put to the test after Ige signed it into law in 2019.

All voters received their ballots 18 days ahead of the election (meaning by July 21), and ballots have to be received by 7 pm on Election Day by either mail or drop-off boxes. The move is meant to help boost turnout — with or without the pandemic — and will serve as a dry run for November.

“It’s hard for us to guess how this election will turn out,” Kauai County clerk Jade Fountain-Tanigawa told the Honolulu Civil Beat a couple of weeks ago. “If the primary is excessively busy, we’re prepared to make changes.”

Vox will be covering the results live, with our partners at Decision Desk HQ.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Kahele’s position in the polls compared to Gabbard before she announced she wouldn’t seek reelection.

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