HONOLULU (AP) — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii doubled down on her long-shot presidential campaign, announcing she wouldn’t also run for reelection in her congressional district where a state senator is mounting a spirited push to take her seat.
The 38-year-old Democrat said the threats of war, international tensions and the threats of a new cold war convinced her she should focus on the presidential race.
“I believe I can best serve the people of Hawaii and our country as your president and commander-in-chief,” she said in in a video recording released online early Friday on the East Coast and late Thursday in the islands.
Her congressional district spans Honolulu’s suburbs and seven other islands. Its disparate communities include sprawling cattle ranches on the Big Island, posh oceanfront resorts on Maui and Native Hawaiian hunters and fishermen on Molokai.
Kai Kahele, a Democratic state senator, combat veteran and lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard, has been running for the seat, accusing her of neglecting the district while she campaigns for president.
Kahele said he respects and appreciates Gabbard’s decision.
“I thank her for her service, and I wish her and her family the best going forward,” he said in a statement after her announcement.
John Hart, a professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University, anticipates multiple other candidates will join Kahele. “I think the gates are open and we’ll see a lot of people jumping in,” Hart said.
Jill Tokuda, a former state senator who finished second in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor last year, is among those considering it.
Jadine Nielsen, who chaired that campaign, said she thinks Tokuda is going to keep her options open.
Colin Moore, a University of Hawaii political science professor, said Gabbard’s move, while unusual, was not surprising. He said the decision will allow her to stay in the presidential campaign until the Democratic convention, as she has vowed.
“It would have been pretty hard for her to face a serious challenge like Kahele from Iowa or one of the other primary states on the mainland,” Moore said.
“I think the bigger question is what is it that she is trying to accomplish here? I don’t think anyone fully understands that,” Moore said.
Hart said there was no data indicating Gabbard’s hold on the seat was at risk. And with her chances of winning the presidency very slim, he said, it’s unclear what her end-game is.
“One thing consistent about her is she’s always played for the long ball, she’s played to go up. So, the question now is where is up?” Hart said.
Gabbard lags behind in a crowded Democratic presidential field, but she’s gotten renewed attention lately after a heated argument with former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The Hawaii congresswoman fought back after Clinton said in a recent interview that she believes Republicans have “got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate.” Clinton, the former senator, U.S. secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, did not name Gabbard directly.
The squabble seemed to give Gabbard renewed energy on the campaign trail.
Gabbard, who launched her presidential bid in January, has emphasized her background as a combat veteran. Currently a major in the Army National Guard, she has served for more than 16 years and deployed twice to the Middle East, according to her announcement. She was first elected to Congress in 2012.
Gabbard recently reported collecting no money for her House reelection campaign over the past three months, even as she banked millions of dollars for her presidential effort.
Gabbard is the seventh House Democrat to announce this year that they’re not running for reelection, all but one of whom hold safe Democratic seats.
That’s a fraction of the 18 House Republicans who’ve said they will retire, plus another three who’ve already resigned and left Congress.