HONOLULU (KHON2) — More money was spent leading into Saturday’s 2022 primary election than in the entire 2020 election cycle, with tens of millions of dollars flowing to candidates from special interest groups trying to influence the race. Always Investigating looked at money and votes.
Hawaii is seeing a steady growth in the cost of running for office, with fundraising and loans on the rise in this election, and another big influx of noncandidate committee money. Experts said the spending to influence voters isn’t necessarily translating on the ballot.
Getting the attention of Hawaii’s 850,000 registered voters is no easy or cheap task. Only 39.6% of registered voters decided to cast a ballot by the end of the primary election cycle that wrapped up Saturday night.
“We understand that this is a midterm election and it’s a primary midterm election, but certainly the turnout was not as robust,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii. “All vote-by-mail was to increase turnout, was to help people vote more easily.”
That’s not for lack of trying by candidates and special interests, who spent record sums up and down the tickets.
Candidates for all state and county offices in the 2022 election cycle raised nearly $15 million by the primary, plus took loans of nearly $3.3 million — and spent almost $17 million so far, according to data tracked by the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission.
Compare that to 15 million candidates raised in the entire 2020 election cycle through the general, with much less in loans, and spending just over $15 million all the way through the 2020 election cycle through to the November general.
Some election watchdogs want to see lower limits on both raising and spending for votes.
“The reason we would like that is so that candidates are not focused on raising money from big-dollar donors,” Ma said. “And are more focused on their constituents and what their constituents need, and are more focused on policy issues, and not just focused on raising money.”
But candidate fundraising is just half the story — actually, less than half, by the dollar figures on noncandidate committees also tracked by the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission.
Special-interest groups raised more than $21 million and spent about $18 million by giving or spending on behalf of candidates in the entire 2020 election cycle.
This time around — just as of the primary election — the noncandidate committees including political action committees (PACs) raised $22 million and spend nearly $20 million, and we’re not even to November yet. (Primary 2022 noncandidate committee data consists of the sum of these two noncandidate tally periods: 2021 and 2022, as the HCSC had the information aligned on its dashboard as of the publication of this story).
“Regulating campaign contributions simply means more money will go to those PACs, where it’s actually less accountable,” explained political analyst Dr. John Hart, a political analyst and communications professor at Hawaii Pacific University. “And who is going to regulate that? Well, the legislature. How did the legislature get elected? Many of them with PAC money.”
In just the 2022 lieutenant governor primary alone, noncandidate committees spent more than $3 million dollars supporting Ikaika Anderson or opposing Sylvia Luke.
That rivals the money each of the biggest-spending gubernatorial candidates spent from their own committees for the top job (Vicky Cayetano at $3.06 million; Josh Green at $2.96 million so far), and far outpaces what the leading lieutenant governor rivals spent in their own names (Anderson $826,485 from his campaign, Sylvia Luke $1.35 from her campaign). Luke ended up beating Anderson despite the heavy noncandidate spending against her.
“What it does tell us is that those PAC ads didn’t move the needle against her,” Hart said.
Hart doesn’t foresee a repeat at the same volume in the general election for governor.
“You know, Green’s persona is a caring, compassionate doctor,” Hart said. “Duke (Aiona), very religious oriented. They’re both going to want to take the high road.”
The less money that flows in, the more voters may turn out.
“We had heard a lot that all of this super-PAC, voters were not happy about it, and it could have depressed turnout by quite a bit,” Ma said. “Just this amount of negative campaigning is not doing the candidates any good, and it’s not doing the electorate any good.”