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Wildberger victorious in rematch with Couch

outh Maui House candidate Don Couch is interviewed by Akaku’s Chivo Ching-Johnson and Kathy Collins during Saturday evening’s virtual coverage. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

In a rematch of sorts for South Maui’s District 11, state House Rep. Tina Wildberger once again defeated Democratic primary challenger Don Couch, who ran two years ago for the seat that represents Kihei, Wailea and Makena.

“I’m feeling very vindicated,” Wildberger said Saturday night. “I’m really pleased that our district voters rejected negative campaigning and demanded to hear about issues.”

Wildberger secured 2,876 votes, or 58.9 percent, in the final tally early Sunday mornimg. Couch had 1,466 votes, or 30.7 percent. Blank votes numbered 531, representing 10.9 percent.

In the 2018 election, first-time candidate Wildberger received 2,181 votes, or nearly 57 percent, to 1,505 votes, or 30 percent, for Couch, who previously held the Maui County Council South Maui residency seat.

Couch, who serves as executive assistant to Mayor Michael Victorino, said Saturday night that he knew the race would be a tough one.

TINA WILDBERGER Is feeling vindicated

“You know, there were more people who came out to vote, but it was a tough struggle,” he said. “It wasn’t unexpected.”

Couch said that incumbency helped his opponent. Plus, campaigning during a pandemic made it difficult to go door to door, he said, adding that he did mailers and lots of digital advertising.

The loss won’t deter Couch from helping his community, though. He said he will continue working with the mayor to shepherd the county through the pandemic.

“I’ll just be focused on helping people get through this COVID-19,” he said.

Wildberger said her home was “MacGyvered” on election night: State TV was on in the living room, county TV could be heard in the kitchen, friends and supporters appeared on Zoom on a laptop and an iPad was set up so she can talk to media.

“How hard would it be if we didn’t have the technology or the capability to reach out? It would be even more challenging than it is now,” she said. “I’m thankful I have my husband and my dogs. Some people who are alone need to be able to reach out and connect.”

The incumbent said she used mailers, boosting social media posts and “most everything” to campaign for reelection.

Wildberger she’s grateful for the support of South Maui voters, and she’s looking forward to tackling the challenges facing constituents.

With rising COVID-19 numbers, the unemployment crisis, climate change and tourism management issues, she said, there remains much to do.

“This is an extremely serious time,” she said. “There are a record number of unemployed people who want to hear inspiration for rebuilding our new normal and our economy.”

Meanwhile, another incumbent, Democratic Rep. Angus McKelvey, also comfortably defended his seat against Leonard K. Nakoa III, earning 2,262 votes, or 55.9 percent, to Nakoa’s 1,155 votes, or 28.5 percent. There were 615 blank votes (15.2 percent).

Also gunning for McKelvey’s District 10 seat that covers West Maui to north Kihei is Republican Kanamu Balinbin, who was running unopposed in the primary and earned 426 votes, or 34.9 percent, with 795 blank votes, or 65.1 percent. Travis Gyldstrand, the lone Aloha Aina candidate for District 10, collected 75 votes, or 62 percent, with 46 blank votes, or 38 percent.

Democratic Rep. Justin Woodson was the only House lawmaker running unopposed in the primary. He had 3,610 votes, or 78.6 percent, with 978 blank votes, or 21.3 percent, and five over votes. His general election opponent in Kahului’s District 9 is Aloha Aina candidate Kahala Jen Chrupalyk, who got 80 votes, or 72.7 percent, with 30 blank votes, or 27.3 percent.

Democratic Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, meanwhile, is the only Maui County senator whose seat is up for reelection this year. He ran unopposed in the primary, garnering 8,738 votes, or 74.5 percent, with 2,973 blank votes, or 25.4 percent. His general election opponents in Central Maui’s District 5 are Republican Christy Kajiwara-Gusman, who had 1,203 votes, or 50.8 percent, with 1,163 blank votes, or 49.1 percent, and Aloha Aina candidate Rynette Ipo Keen, who had 217 votes, or 68.5 percent, with 100 blank votes, or 31.5 percent.

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