Although he supposedly has less statewide name recognition than his main opponent, Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui has a 12 percentage point lead over Windward Oahu Sen. Clayton Hee in the Democratic lieutenant governor primary, according to a Civil Beat poll.
The online news source reported Friday that Tsutsui, the former Central Maui senator and Senate president, had the support of 41 percent of those polled, compared with Hee, who had 29 percent. Another 29 percent were undecided.
Other Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor, including former TV reporter Mary Zanakis, were not included in the poll.
Contacted Saturday, Tsutsui downplayed the poll, especially coming two months before the Aug. 9 primary election.
"I guess it's better to be ahead than behind," he said. "But I try not to put too much weight in polls. We'll continue to work hard and even harder as we head toward the election."
Efforts to contact Hee for comment were unsuccessful.
Civil Beat surveyed 1,078 registered Hawaii voters statewide June 7 to 9 for the lieutenant governor's race. Of those, 729 said they expected to vote Democrat in the Aug. 9 primary.
The poll, conducted by Merriman River Group, included a mix of landline and cellphone users and has a 3.6 percent margin of error.
University of Hawaii at Manoa political science professor Neal Milner said he was "impressed" with how well Tsutsui has done in polls.
Nevertheless, he said, the lieutenant governor's race is "still pretty fluid."
"Tsutsui, the incumbent, has low name recognition because he has never run for statewide office and because Clayton Hee, his main opponent, is well known for a state senator," Milner said. However, "like any state senator, (Hee) is not all that well known outside of his district, even though Hee is a visible and often controversial legislator.
"In other words, all of this, plus the fact that the Civil Beat poll showed that a lot of voters remain undecided means that things may change," Milner said.
On Thursday, Civil Beat reported its poll results on the governor's race. That survey of voters showed Gov. Neil Abercrombie trailing state Sen. David Ige 37 percent to 48 percent.
No sitting Hawaii governor has ever lost a primary election, although, as Civil Beat pointed out, they have "sometimes received spirited challenges from within the party."
The Civil Beat report said that, in Hawaii political history, it's "unusual to have a contested primary against a sitting lieutenant governor."
The report also noted Tsutsui's unusual ascent to the lieutenant governor's office.
Tsutsui, 42, was Central Maui's senator from 2002 to 2012 and was serving as Senate president, a first for a Mauian, when U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye died Dec. 17, 2012. Abercrombie appointed then-Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz to replace Inouye, and the governor then tapped Tsutsui as his lieutenant governor.
Abercrombie's appointment of Schatz, instead of U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, to succeed Inouye has roiled the Hawaii Democratic Party. Hanabusa was Inouye's choice as his successor.
While Abercrombie deals with the fallout of his appointment of Schatz and tries to fend off a challenge from Ige, whoever the Democratic nominee is for governor will face the Hawaii Independent Party ticket headed by former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann - a former Democrat - and his running mate Les Chang, a former Honolulu city official.
On Friday, Mayor Alan Arakawa endorsed Hannemann, saying the former Honolulu mayor is the "best administrator" of the candidates seeking the office.
Republican Duke Aiona is making another bid for governor, and he will be joined on the GOP ticket by either Elwin Ahu or Warner "Kimo" Sutton.