BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU — Just months after becoming governor in 2010, Neil Abercrombie was ranked by Public Policy Polling as the nation’s most unpopular governor.
In the past three years, his continued to spiral downward.
With the Democratic primary set for Saturday, key political polls show he is trailing behind his relatively unknown opponent, Senate Ways and Means Chairman David Ige.
If Abercrombie loses this primary, it will be the first time in Hawaii’s history a sitting Democrat governor is ousted after just one term.
Polls show it is likely.
Honolulu-based Ward Research queried 458 likely primary voters July 21-29 for two major media outlets, Hawaii News Now and the Star Advertiser, and found Ige with 54 percent of the vote to Abercrombie’s 36 percent. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percent.
Abercrombie did not return calls and an email seeking comment.
The online news site Honolulu Civil Beat poll of 1,240 voters statewide conducted July 24-28 that claims a 3.3 percent margin of error shows Ige ahead of Abercrombie, 51-41 percent.
While Abercrombie’s team said the polls are unreliable, many of Hawaii’s politically savvy disagree.
Political analyst Neal Milner said Ige substantial lead is stunning because he is a relatively unknown state senator with a 10-1 fundraising disadvantage, bringing in just $500,000 to Abercrombie’s $5 million.
There’s also been no scandal, no single policy or ideological difference that has led to Abercrombie popularity dive, Milner said. Rather it is more a collection of individual grievance and a perception of the governor.
“Gov. Abercrombie has lost his mojo,” Milner said.
The contrast between Abercrombie and Ige’s style is another factor.
The 57-year old Ige is quiet. He likes to say he listens more than he talks. And his allies say he’s a genuinely nice person.
That’s in stark contrast to Abercrombie’s boisterous and even abrasive style.
Democrats say Abercrombie has lost backing from many in his party because he’s too aggressive, controlling and retaliatory against his opponents.
In many cases, Democrats say their switch is more of an “anti-Abercrombie” vote rather than a “pro-Ige vote.”
Both have extensive experience in government.
Abercrombie, 76, served in the state House and Senate before being appointed to Congress in 1986 and holding that seat until he ran for governor in 2010.
Ige has professional and political experience, which includes 35 years in the private sector as a businessman and engineer, and 29 years in elected office.
Ige told Hawaii Reporter he has countered Abercrombie’s incumbency advantage and formidable war chest through a hard-fought grassroots campaign.
Ige has spent virtually every meal with between 10 to 100 or more people since he announced his candidacy, feeding them stew dinners or breakfast or lunch, and talking with them about his plans for Hawaii.
Ige said he has heard complaints about Abercrombie’s leadership while on the campaign trail, but added there have been few specifics.
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, once a close ally of Abercrombie, is backing Ige in the governor’s race. He told Hawaii Reporter he believes Abercrombie has lost touch with his Democratic base.
In addition, Abercrombie has lost favor with his supporters in part because he reversed his positions on key issues without explaining why, Cayetano said.
For example, Abercrombie’s backers believed he was anti-development and pro environment when they cast their vote in the governor’s race in 2010, Cayetano said.
However, Abercrombie has become one of the most pro-development governor’s in Hawaii’s history, Cayetano said, allowing Oahu’s two most controversial construction projects to move forward, even rezoning rare agricultural land in the process.
Abercrombie told supporters he would protect the agricultural land in West Oahu in an area called Hoopili, Cayetano said. Environmentalists who backed Abercrombie during his 2010 election tried to stop these developments for years, but in the end, it was Abercrombie who pushed them through.
The Hoopili planned community, which includes 11,750 new homes as well as shopping areas on Oahu’s west side, will be built on some of the island’s only remaining rich soil land where farms have been growing produce for Hawaii’s stores for decades. The project is tied to the county’s unpopular 20-mile elevated steel rail system, which is costing taxpayers another $5 billion.
Under the governor’s watch, a second controversial master-planned community with 5,000 homes in the mountains of Miliani, Oahu, called Koa Ridge is moving forward. The land was rezoned in June 2012 from agricultural to urban by the state Land Use Commission, whose members were selected by Abercrombie.
During Abercrombie’s term, construction in Honolulu is booming with plans for up to 29 new condominium projects on the waterfront area.
Cayetano said Abercrombie wants to create a Honolulu that looks more like Singapore than Hawaii, and that isn’t sitting well with voters who sayOahu is already overdeveloped.
While Abercrombie said he is backing these projects because Oahu residents need more housing, the condos planned for the area range from $600,000 to $50 million each, not prices many Hawaii families can afford, Cayetano said.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association has also backed Ige over Abercrombie because of previous grievances. Other government unions have either remained neutral or backed Abercrombie. Former Gov. John Waihee is behind Abercrombie.
Behind the scenes, Democrats say Abercrombie is scrambling, and even has his wife personally lobbying their base to support her husband’s re-election.
Abercrombie’s team has denied the recent polls are accurate and said Abercrombie and Ige are actually locked in a tie. However, Watchdog.org has learned Ige’s internal polls have results similar to the Hawaii News Now-Star Advertiser poll.
The winner of Saturday’s primary will run against former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona and former Mayor Mufi Hannemann in November’s general election. Aiona is a Republican and Hannemann, a Democrat, is running as an independent.