The Hawaii Democrat is staring down an increasingly difficult path to the Democratic Party’s nomination. She has yet to qualify for the next debate in November and has spent all of the primary race so far at single digits in the polls. Back at home, she also faces the most formidable challenge to her House seat since she was elected in 2012.
Since her first election, Gabbard has enjoyed healthy margins of victory. She had primary challengers in both 2016 and 2018, but still captured more than 75% of the vote in each election. Gabbard was elected in 2012 in a five-way primary race with 54% support.
But local insiders say a primary challenge from state Sen. Kai Kahele is to be taken seriously, in part because he already has high-profile support among towering local officials.
“That gives a pretty good indication of how the mainstream Democratic Party here regards her,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii.
Kahele told CNN on Monday that his campaign had its best day of fundraising when Gabbard and Clinton clashed.
Some Hawaii political insiders have quietly speculated that Gabbard could be eyeing a cable news contributor deal, but publicly it remains just speculation.
“If you decide to run for the presidency and spend all this time out there, it seems something else other than auditioning for Fox News is in your head,” said Neal Milner, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii.
For Hawaii political observers who have followed Gabbard’s career, her endgame remains a mystery.
“Anyone who says in confidence that they know what she’s up to is BS’ing. It’s all pretty speculative,” Milner said.
“Her relationship with the media is very surface-y,” Milner added. “It’s very hard to get anything in depth about herself or what she is trying to do.”
“It’s not as if people in Hawaii have a clear idea of what Tulsi Gabbard wants,” said Moore. “Everyone greets it with the same shoulder shrug. We don’t know.”
For her part, Gabbard, who has vehemently denied Clinton’s charges, spent the weekend firing back at Clinton and made it clear her intention is to stay in the primary.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who Gabbard supported in 2016, defended the congresswoman on Monday, writing in a tweet that “it is outrageous for anyone to suggest that Tulsi is a foreign asset.”
The exchange between Gabbard and Clinton also attracted the attention of President Donald Trump, who said Gabbard is “helped” by the allegations. “Hillary Clinton, she’s the one that’s accusing everyone of being a Russian agent. Anybody that is opposed to her is a Russian agent. That’s a scam that was pretty much put down,” Trump said at the beginning of a Cabinet meeting on Monday.
He added that he doesn’t “know Tulsi, but she’s not a Russian agent.”
“I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” Clinton said, speaking on a podcast with former Obama adviser David Plouffe. “She’s the favorite of the Russians.”
In Gabbard’s rural district across Hawaii’s outer islands, her anti-establishment streak plays to supporters, especially in a state known for its traditional Democratic Party dominance.
“Part of her support comes from the fact that the Democratic elite don’t approve of Tulsi Gabbard. It’s something appealing, especially to voters on the neighbor islands,” Moore said, using a local term to describe Hawaii’s islands other than Oahu.
But Moore noted “how unusual her behavior is as a politician from Hawaii,” as especially ambitious and someone who has risen in politics since her election to the state Legislature when she was just 21. “This is a state where people don’t step out of line. You wait your turn.”
“That is something that is almost never done here,” Moore told CNN. “It was greeted with a certain amount of shock by the Democrats here in Hawaii.”
Despite that hiccup, the delegation’s relationship is outwardly copacetic.
Gabbard’s fellow Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Ed Case, said in a statement to CNN that he has a “good and productive relationship with his colleague.”