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How One of the Most Vulnerable Governors Staged a Comeback

After the state sent out a false nuclear attack warning in January, Hawaii Gov. David Ige trailed in polls. Now he's favored to win reelection.

David Ige1
Hawaii Gov. David Ige
(AP/Caleb Jones)
Last Updated Aug. 13 at 8:19 a.m. ET

One of the year's greatest political comeback stories is playing out in Hawaii. Gov. David Ige, who looked like a sure loser a few months ago, now appears poised to win a second term.

Polls conducted this spring showed Ige trailing Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa by 20-point margins. At a time when fears of a North Korean nuclear attack were high, a false emergency alert in January warning Hawaiians of an impending ballistic missile -- and Ige's slow response to it -- appeared to doom his reelection chances.

But polls heading into Saturday's Democratic primary showed Ige with the lead. And in Hawaii, all the action is in Democratic primaries. Republicans are essentially irrelevant. They hold no seats in the state Senate and five seats out of 51 in the state House. The Democratic nominee for governor will be considered a lock against state Rep. Andria Tupola, the GOP nominee.

"The first and most important thing is that Colleen Hanabusa [Ige's opponent] ran a terrible campaign," says Colin Moore, who directs the University of Hawaii's public policy center. "She wasn't in the state for the most important period" -- because she was serving in Congress -- "and never really articulated a clear campaign message that gave voters a reason to vote for her."

Ironically for a governor whose fortunes were almost sunk by a false nuclear warning, Ige's chances were revived largely thanks to natural disasters. Huge rainstorms over Kauai in April led to historic flooding there, damaging or destroying more than 500 homes. Meanwhile, volcanic lava has ruined so many homes on the Big Island of Hawaii that, as Hurricane Hector approached, there was mordant joking that there's nothing left to destroy.

Recovery is ongoing, but the disasters gave Ige the chance to demonstrate leadership qualities that were conspicuously not on display during the false missile alert.

"Gov. Ige has run a vigorous campaign driven by effective messaging, combined with the advantage of being the incumbent during two major disasters," says Donalyn Dela Cruz, a communications consultant.

Incumbency provided Ige with other advantages. He was able to make the local news when he held bill signing ceremonies, while Hanabusa was trapped 5,000 miles away in Washington. Neil Abercrombie, Ige's predecessor, resigned his seat in Congress to make his run for governor, recognizing the difficulties of seeking the office long distance.

Hanabusa did not make that move.

Four years ago, she did give up her seat in the U.S. House to run unsuccessfully for the Senate. In 2016, she won back her House seat. Running for her third different office in as many election cycles led to some grumbling that she was seeking the governorship mostly to satisfy career ambitions.

Although she derided Ige's leadership abilities, Hanabusa had not articulated major policy differences with him. She was a longtime labor lawyer and had received some union support. But Ige has the endorsement of the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the Sierra Club, and managed to present himself as the more progressive choice.

While Ige is running at a time of historically low unemployment in the state -- its 2 percent rate in May was the lowest recorded by any state since the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping track back in 1976 -- the cost of living and housing remains a serious sore point.

Ige himself unseated Abercrombie four years ago. If he had lost, it would have been the second time in a row the governor lost his seat in a primary -- something that's happened only a handful of times in American history. 

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*CORRECTION: Neil Abercrombie's name was previously misspelled as Neal Abercrombie.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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