WASHINGTON — A spate of special interest money has entered the Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district, and it’s all working toward the same end — sending Rep. Patrick Branco to Washington.
Mainland groups with super PACs have spent more than $1 million supporting Branco and criticizing his opponent, former state senator Jill Tokuda, who polls say is the contest’s frontrunner.
VoteVets has spent more than $250,000 on TV ads that attacked Tokuda over an endorsement she received from the National Rifle Association in 2012.
Another group, Mainstream Democrats, whose backers include LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, launched its own six-figure direct mail attack on Tokuda, criticizing it for accepting thousands of dollars in donations from Monsanto Co. and then enacting legislation who would do so have mandated pesticide buffer zones around schools.
The negative ads have forced Tokuda, 46, into a defensive stance. She has issued press releases and ran her own ads to defend her gun control record.
A number of Tokuda’s former colleagues in the Legislature, including Senate President Ron Kouchi and Sens. Chris Lee and Rosalyn Baker, have gathered around her. She and 13 other lawmakers issued a press release last week calling on Branco to stop misrepresenting Tokuda’s gun safety records and calling on the super PACs supporting his campaign to mitigate the attacks.
“Relying almost exclusively on mainland money going into the state is really bad,” Lee said in an interview Monday. “It’s even worse that the ads it funds are patently false and misleading. But it’s a whole other level beyond that, the candidate who benefits from it won’t even deny this completely false information.”
Red Boxing allegations
Tokuda also called on Branco to invite outside influences into the race through a practice known as red-boxing, a way for candidates to circumvent campaign spending laws that prohibit coordinating with super PACs and other outside spending groups.
Red-boxing has become increasingly common in recent years, with contestants using encrypted speech to signal super PACs and other outside spending groups what messages to broadcast on their behalf.
It can be identified through the use of key phrases on a campaign website, such as “What voters need to know” or “Here’s what voters should read, hear or see on the go”. Candidates often post free, downloadable images and b-roll video footage on their website to support their talking points and proposed audiences.
In the case of Branco, the instructions on their website are detailed and clear.
For example, Branco suggests that senior and liberal voters on Maui and the Big Island should be briefed on Tokuda’s “troubling gun safety background” and that all messages should be “without contrast,” meaning he doesn’t want his own image the advertisements appear.
“It’s definitely surprising to see this level of external spending coming into play, but unfortunately it’s not unexpected,” Tokuda said. “To me he has a ‘For Sale’ sign on his website.”
Tokuda’s campaign has its own stock footage posted to YouTube, but their campaign doesn’t appear to be using the same tactics.
Other groups supporting Branco include Web3 Forward and DAO for America, which support candidates deemed friendly to the cryptocurrency industry, and Bold PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Branco, 35, are both part Latinos and have pushed legislation to make it easier for blockchain companies to thrive in the islands with limited regulation.
“That’s a cheap congressional seat in the basement.” — Political media adviser Martin Hamburger
Adav Noti is Vice President and Legal Director of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. His organization views redboxing as illegal coordination between candidates and super PACs. The problem, he said, is that the Federal Elections Commission has yet to do anything about enforcement.
Noti said he reviewed the content on Branco’s website and called it “brazen” and a “egregious” rule infraction.
“It’s coordinated in every possible way,” Noti said. “This means that if a wealthy donor comes in and buys those ads as requested, the candidate owes a debt of gratitude to that donor. This is exactly what the Anti-Corruption Act is intended to prevent.”
Branco declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in a text message that he didn’t coordinate with an outside group and “had no idea why anyone would spend money to support or fight me.”
“We need strong campaign finance reform and I will be pushing for it in Congress to get money out of our elections,” he said.
A political gamble
The amount of money that VoteVets, Mainstream Democrats, Bold PAC, Web3 Forward and DAO for America have put into CD2 is significant. The $1 million in independent spending is almost twice the total money Tokuda’s campaign has raised this election cycle and almost seven times the contributions Branco has received.
The prevailing political wisdom in Hawaii in general has been that Tokuda is a shoe-in. She is the better-known candidate, having previously raced statewide and served in the legislature for more than a decade, while Branco, who is completing his only two-year term in the State House, is a relative newcomer to Hawaiian politics.
A Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll in late June found Tokuda had a 31% to 6% lead over Branco, leading many to believe CD2 was their seat they are losing in the August 13 primary could, considering that the Republicans almost never have a chance in the general election.
But observers say the large number of undecided voters — 63% according to the poll — provided an opening for outside political actors who would prefer to see Branco in Congress.
“Tokuda has a lead, but the polls show he’s very weak,” said Martin Hamburger, a Washington DC-based political media consultant who also works in Hawaii. “What these groups are doing makes it clear that they have some weaknesses on some issues. Now it’s up to Branco and his team to say, “I’m a good alternative.”
Much of Branco’s pitch to voters stems from the fact that he used to work as a diplomat for the State Department, completing trips abroad to Colombia, Venezuela and Pakistan. He also emphasized his background and the fact that if elected, he would be the only voting member of Congress who is a native Hawaiian.
Hamburger said Hawaii has an affordable media market, which means it doesn’t cost much for well-funded PACs like Bold PAC or VoteVets to play on an underdog candidate who doesn’t have a lot of notoriety.
The return on investment — a consistent vote in Congress — is much higher than the $250,000 asking price, especially considering it could cost millions of dollars in more competitive markets like New York, Detroit, or Los Angeles.
“This is a cheap congress seat in the basement,” said Hamburger.
Kim Devlin, campaign adviser at Mercury Public Affairs, takes a similar view of the race.
In 2010, Devlin worked for Kirk Caldwell on his unsuccessful bid for mayor of Honolulu. Two years later, she was part of the Pacific Resource Partnership team that ran one of the most sophisticated political operations the islands had ever seen to help Caldwell win the 2012 mayoral race.
Although Tokuda has an advantage in polls, the large number of undecided voters should worry her and her campaign, Devlin said.
The new money coming into play for Branco can boost his notoriety and earn him multiple points in the election, she said. However, it’s up to him to craft a compelling narrative that resonates with voters.
“Money talks,” said Devlin. “It will be an interesting experiment to see how voters react to the fact that it comes from national interests in DC.”
Jon Soltz, the chairman and co-founder of VoteVets, agrees that given the number of undecided voters and the fact that advertising is so cheap in Hawaii, the race is a failure.
Soltz’s organization has worked on a number of campaigns in Hawaii, including for former US Representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Mark Takai, both of whom he pointed out were considered underdogs in their respective competitions.
He said it was important for Hawaii to have someone like Branco in the federal office because of his background in national security.
Branco can also help fill the void left by U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, who decided against reelection to run for governor. Kahele is a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“This race is wide open and if it wasn’t wide open you wouldn’t see this amount of spending being done,” Soltz said. “We don’t spend money unless we intend to win.”