"In the normal course of events, a Republican really shouldn't win," said one Democratic strategist. "But this is decidedly not the normal course of events."
While there's been little general-election polling in the governor's race, and polling in Hawaii is notoriously difficult to do, a June Honolulu Civil Beat matchup between the three candidates found Aiona with a 6-point lead over Abercrombie, 33 percent to 27 percent. Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, the independent candidate, trailed at 18 percent.
But that's not the only thing making Republicans hopeful. As a former lieutenant governor under Linda Lingle, a Republican who won two terms here, Aiona is well-known across the state and is a veteran of statewide campaigns. And as a Hawaii native, he's got a good story to tell—born in Pearl City, son of a Portuguese-Hawaiian father and a Chinese mother; went to college in California but returned home to go to law school and start his career.
In contrast, Abercrombie has real problems this year, and not just with Republican voters. He's in a serious primary contest against David Ige, a longtime state senator who's been pulling ahead of the incumbent. Indeed, Democrats know Abercrombie is vulnerable in the Aug. 9 primary.
He has a distinctive political style, with lofty rhetoric that critics even inside his party say often doesn't match his results. "You either like him or you don't—so he's been very polarizing during his four years," said Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, Hawaii's largest union. (Polarizing not least with HGEA itself, which endorsed Abercrombie in 2010 but has stayed neutral this year, after the governor angered labor by introducing pay cuts for government employees.)
Abercrombie defended his tenure at a Democratic forum in Honolulu in June, saying it's impossible to get things done without making a few people angry along the way. "My sole purpose was to give and to give back to Hawaii," he said. "Leadership requires action—leadership and action have gone together."
But it's not just Abercrombie's record or his unpopularity that are creating opportunity for Aiona. Indeed, Democrats face a messy general election whether their nominee is the current governor or Ige, thanks to the entry of Hannemann, the former Democrat now running as an independent who threatens to play spoiler in November.
The three-way race means the threshold for victory will be lower—and, depending on how well Hannemann does, it could be much lower. Consider Maine, another generally blue state, in 2010: Republican Paul LePage won the Governor's Mansion with just 38 percent of the vote; independent candidate Eliot Cutler took 36.5 percent of the vote, beating out even the Democrat.
For a Republican in a state like Hawaii, getting to 35 or 40 percent is a far easier task than getting a full majority—and Aiona's campaign is betting on that very phenomenon.