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Amid storms, Hawaii governor also faces tough primary challenge

Newly elected Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie speaks to the media alongside other Governors-elect outside the West Wing of the White House
Newly elected Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie speaks to the media alongside other Governors-elect outside the West Wing of the White House

By Malia Mattoch McManus

HONOLULU (Reuters) - As Hawaii feels the brunt of a tropical storm and braces for a hurricane barreling in behind it, the archipelago also faces a possible political tempest as its incumbent governor battles a surging Democratic primary challenger on Saturday.

Polls show Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie could face an uphill battle despite a thriving state economy and a fundraising advantage. Two new polls give his opponent, state Senator David Ige, a double-digit lead.

Hawaii has consistently re-elected incumbent Democratic governors since Republican Bill Quinn was ousted in 1962. But a late July poll of 458 likely voters conducted for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser puts Ige 18 points ahead at 54-36. Another late July poll of 1,240 registered voters for Civil Beat put Ige’s lead at 10 points, at 51-41.

“Nobody saw this coming,” Civil Beat political reporter Chad Blair said. “If the polls turn out to be correct, it’s a major shakeup not only in the Hawaii Democratic party, but in state government.”

Abercrombie told supporters in a statement that internal polling showed a tight race. He has reminded voters that historically, Hawaii polls have often been inconsistent with the actual results.

Supporters cited his accomplishments. Abercrombie supported legalizing gay marriage, helped negotiate a North Shore land conservation deal and championed development in downtown Honolulu. He also represented Hawaii in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1990 to 2010.

"If you draw up a list of things he's done, it's not a bad list," said former University of Hawaii political science professor Neal Milner, adding that a "collection of little things" contributed to the apparent opinion shift.

"Some people feel he favored developers too much. Or they don't like that he tried to tax pensions," he said.

Complicating matters, back-to-back storms have already toppled trees and prompted warnings for flash floods. Residents have been warned to keep off roads. Abercrombie has been on television updating residents on storm preparations.

Tropical Storm Iselle lashed Hawaii's Big Island on Friday, and Hurricane Julio was expected to pass north of Hawaii at the weekend. But Office of Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla said there were no immediate plans to postpone voting.

Analysts said it was unusual for an incumbent to struggle given the strength of the economy, with unemployment near a record low, tourism going well and state coffers sound.

They said Ige had managed to cast doubt on how much credit Abercrombie deserved for the progress.

Of voters who said they planned to vote for Ige, a Hawaii-born veteran state lawmaker, some 46 percent told Star Advertiser pollsters they “just don’t like the other candidate.”

Ige’s campaign issued emails urging voters to cast ballots early because of the storms. The winner will face Independent and Republican candidates in November’s general election.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by David Gregorio)

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