Tulsi Gabbard Wants A New Job. A Primary Challenger Wants Her Current One.

While Rep. Gabbard runs for president, Hawaii state Sen. Kai Kahele has his eyes on her congressional seat.
State Sen. Kai Kahele announced his congressional run in January.
State Sen. Kai Kahele announced his congressional run in January.

As she makes a long shot bid for president, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is facing a serious threat at home: a primary challenger who has raised more money and received more high-profile endorsements than she has. 

Hawaii state Sen. Kaiali’i Kahele (D) launched his primary bid against Gabbard, who has represented the state’s 2nd Congressional District since 2013, in January. 

He believed her absence from the district she is representing and her sometimes polarizing stances — Gabbard only belatedly and seemingly reluctantly supported an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, for example, and drew criticism earlier this year after she refused to condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — would give him an opening.

“What I really think is important is that we have leaders that are decisive, have some resolve, and are not motivated one way or another to go where the political trade winds blow,” Kahele told HuffPost, alluding to Gabbard. 

In the first two quarters of 2019, Kahele raised $399,000 in campaign contributions, more than quadruple Gabbard’s $83,000. Three former Hawaii governors have endorsed him. And there are signs of trouble for Gabbard: A recent Public Policy Polling survey found that a majority of District 2 constituents support her dropping out of the congressional race altogether. In the same poll, she led Kahele 48 to 26 in a head-to-head matchup, but the fact that 27% of voters in the district were undecided shows that he has a clear path to victory in next year’s primary. 

“Constituents do not feel that local or national offices are responsive to their concerns, or available when they need them,” Kahele claimed. “My first and foremost concern is to make sure that the people of [our district] are well represented.” 

‘Putting The Priorities Of Hawaii’s Residents First’ 

Kahele, who goes by a Kai, a nickname based on his first name, joined the state Senate in 2016 at age 42. A Hilo-based commercial pilot and Air National Guard lieutenant colonel, he hadn’t envisioned getting into politics so young. But “unfortunate circumstances presented an incredible opportunity,” he said.

In early 2016, Kahele’s father, the late state Sen. Gil Kahele, suffered a heart attack. Fighting for his life, Gil asked Kai for one thing: to take over his seat in the state’s first district. Kai agreed. Two days later, his father died. 

Gov. David Ige appointed Kai to the state Senate in February 2016. He finished out his late father’s term, then ran two successful campaigns in 2016 and 2018, winning each with close to 90% of the vote. 

Kahele believes he’d do a better job than Gabbard has serving Hawaii’s diverse 2nd Congressional District, which is made up of several islands — some big and booming, others small and rural. The district encompasses all of the Hawaiian islands except for the southern half of Oahu, where Honolulu has its own representative. 

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) takes the stage at a debate in July.
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) takes the stage at a debate in July.

Some of the most pressing issues in the district are education access and health care for veterans and rural communities on those neighboring islands. Despite Hawaii’s annual rankings as one of the country’s healthiest states, rural residents struggle to access health care, with only 14 rural hospitals across the entire state. 

Kahele witnessed the lack of access after his father’s heart attack in 2016, when Gil Kahele had to be taken in a medevac helicopter from the Big Island to the island of Oahu because the local medical centers couldn’t accommodate the procedure he needed. Like many candidates in a post-2016 political landscape, Kahele said he’s running on a platform of unity: “bringing teamwork and collaboration to the Hawaii delegation,” he said. “We have four out of 535 members in Congress, 5,000 miles away ... We need a delegation that’s working together, that’s putting the priorities of Hawaii’s residents first.”

That includes working across the aisle: “We should all be Americans first,” he said. 

‘That’s An Impeachable Offense’

But Kahele doesn’t plan on participating in both-sides-ism. He’s seized on Gabbard’s past resistance to an impeachment inquiry, and he’s hammering her on it. 

For months, Gabbard said she would not support an impeachment inquiry, calling it “terribly divisive” — even after a whistleblower alleged that Trump urged Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

The news prompted Kahele to respond, tweeting that impeachment wouldn’t “tear this country apart” any more than Trump already has. 

After the whistleblower complaint prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to launch an impeachment inquiry, Democratic support for impeachment shot up to 81%. A few days later, Gabbard backtracked and released a statement in which she begrudgingly supported the inquiry. Kahele said he was glad Gabbard reversed her position. 

“I hope it was due to the facts presented, and not about how the trade winds were blowing,” he said.

But he doesn’t understand how she hadn’t gotten to that position sooner, he added. 

“It was clear to me from reading the Mueller report, the whistleblower report and Ukraine memo, that the president asked a foreign leader to dig up dirt on a political rival and mess with the 2020 elections,” Kahele said. “That’s an impeachable offense.” 

Gabbard and Kahele have yet to face off publicly ― Hawaii law forbids Gabbard from running for two public positions simultaneously, so she hasn’t yet announced a reelection campaign. She’s given no indication she plans to give up her seat if she doesn’t win the presidential nomination, but Kahele remains optimistic about his campaign efforts. Hawaii has consistently produced one of Trump’s lowest approval ratings — dipping as low as 29% — and 65% of registered voters in the state think he should be impeached. The longer Gabbard took to condemn his actions, the more Hawaii voters seemed to disapprove of her, too. This isn’t a new problem for Gabbard, either: Her polling numbers among Aloha State voters dropped after she met with Trump prior to his inauguration in 2017.

Gabbard did not return HuffPost’s request for comment for this piece. 

“She’s got a fucking tiger on her tail, and she’s gonna be in trouble,” Kai told Vice News in June. (He later apologized for swearing, and said he thought he was speaking off the record.) “It’s a different Hawaii than what she’s used to, and I’m a completely different candidate than anything she’s ever faced.”

“It’s time for a change in the White House,” he told HuffPost. “And it’s time for a change in District 2.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Kahele’s rank as major; he is a lieutenant colonel.

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