HONOLULU — Kai Kahele was prepared to do the unthinkable: take on an incumbent from his own party for a U.S. House seat.
He felt so strongly that Hawaii residents were being hurt by the presidential ambitions of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard that he announced early on he would challenge his fellow Democrat.
Then, just months after Kahele got in the race, Gabbard announced she wouldn’t seek re-election to the House seat she had held since 2013 and would instead focus on her campaign for the White House.
Kahele’s bold move paved the way for him to claim an easy victory Saturday in the Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.
The 46-year-old said it's been a long journey since he launched his campaign in January 2019 and it's exciting to get to this point.
“I’m looking forward to hitting the campaign trail again and marching to the general," Kahele said in an interview.
Kahele had such an advantage over his competitors that he spent the past four months on active duty in the Hawaii National Guard helping the state respond to the coronavirus pandemic. He was not able to conduct any campaign activities during that time.
“At times it’s been challenging because I wanted to be involved. We put so much time and effort into the campaign before I left. But at the same time, I was confident in the team that I had built and we had built together," Kahele said.
Kahele has served in the state Senate since 2016, starting from when he was appointed to fill the remainder of his father’s term after he died. He was elected for the first time later that year.
He works as a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines and flies C-17 jets as a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard. He’s married to a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant and has three daughters.
Kahele is an advocate of “Medicare for All” and supports the idea of a “Green New Deal” to address climate change and help Hawaii meet its clean energy goals.
Joe Akana won the Republican primary for the 2nd Congressional District, which covers suburban Honolulu and Hawaii’s more rural islands, over eight other GOP challengers. Kahele is the overwhelming favorite to win the seat in November in heavily Democratic Hawaii.
A win by either Akana or Kahele would give Hawaii its second Native Hawaiian in Congress since statehood. The first was the late Sen. Daniel Akaka, who left office in 2013.
With Saturday’s election, Hawaii becomes the fifth state to conduct an election entirely by mail after the state enacted a vote-by-mail law last year. Hawaii joins Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Utah in holding all-mail elections. In Hawaii, voters have also had the option to cast ballots in-person at a handful voter service centers over the past two weeks. But the overwhelming majority have used mail.
Elections officials mailed ballots to voters in mid-July. They will count votes received by 7 p.m. on Saturday.
The mail-in ballots likely boosted turnout. Elections officials reported they received some 380,000 ballots.
Hawaii elections data posted online going back to 1992 shows the last time more than 300,000 ballots were cast was in 1994, when there were 309,700.
Just 286,180 ballots were cast in the 2018 primary. In 2016, the number was 252,725.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Ed Case won the Democratic nomination for the 1st Congressional District seat after he ran unopposed. Case was first elected to this seat in 2018. He represented the 2nd Congressional District from 2002 to 2007 and served in the state House from 1994 to 2002.
Ron Curtis beat four other Republican primary challengers for the seat, which represents urban Honolulu.