The race for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional Distrct seat will be much more crowded without incumbent Tulsi Gabbard, political experts say.
Gabbard announced on Friday she would not seek reelection in 2020 so that she can focus on her presidential campaign, often described as a long-short effort to win the White House.
Neal Milner, a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii, noted that Gabbard’s decision to not seek reelection altered the outlook for local candidates with their eyes on higher office.
“What the second district has become is an open seat, and that is a whole different ball game because anyone who wants to run for national office knows that your real shot is when you’re not running against an incumbent,” he said. “Now, because the seat is open, it becomes more attractive to who knows how many other candidates.”
Milner described the types of candidates he expects will enter the race in the coming weeks and months.
“This is the usual pattern, people who are maybe on the youngish side, have larger political ambitions than they have right now and they decide to run for office,” he said. “The fact that it’s not obvious suggests something about what the dynamics of the race is.”
State Sen. Kai Kahele, who represents Hilo, is the only candidate who has officially announced a run for Gabbard's congressional seat.
Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center, said Kahele has a big advantage because he started early. "He has some strong endorsements, but this will end up looking more like the first congressional district race we saw with [Congressman] Ed Case,” he said.
Case, who represents the 1st Congressional District, won the Democratic Party nomination in 2018 despite a crowded field and went on to take the seat in the general election. But Case had the advantage of having served in the U.S. House from 2002 to 2007.
So while Kahele's early candidacy gives him a boost, he could still be challenged.
“Although he seems to have the support of a lot of old Democratic politicians . . . that’s not really enough,” Milner said. “In the last election, you had a bunch of newbies, not newbies to politics, but newbies to running for a broad office. Then all of a sudden Ed Case came in with a large name recognition, and had held the office before. He just creamed everybody.”
While Gabbard is still in office, Milner said she will probably attend Congress for important votes, such as those on the impeachment probe. But her presence otherwise will remain minimal — as is the trend among members of Congress who are also running for president.
Kahele has criticized Gabbard for missing votes on key legislation, such as that addressing campaign interference by foreign governments.
“That’s absolutely unacceptable. That’s not what the people of Hawaii hired her to do,” Kahele said. “Hawaii is a small delegation -- we only have four members out of 535. We need every single one of those members working together giving 110%.”
Milner said Hawaii is now in the same position that it's always been in presidential elections.
“If you were Tulsi Gabbard, and you really think you got a shot at winning the Democratic nomination, how much [time] are you going to spend in a state that is so far away that it's logistically hard? And it's a small state,” he said. “You’re not going to see her here very much.”
Gabbard could not be reached for comment, but in a statement on her website, she said she was grateful for having served Hawaii in Congress for the past seven years.
But with the country as divided as it is and the world "moving ever closer to a nuclear holocaust," Gabbard said she believes she can serve Hawaii best as president and commander-in-chief.
Next year's general election is Nov. 3. The winner of Gabbard's congressional seat will be sworn in on Jan. 3, 2021.