By Malia Mattoch McManus
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Incumbent Governor Neil Abercrombie conceded defeat on Saturday as Hawaii voters overwhelmingly backed his challenger in the state's Democratic primary, even as local authorities and residents cleaned up debris from a tropical storm and tried to prepare for an approaching hurricane.
With two-thirds of the votes counted, Abercrombie trailed his opponent, state Senator David Ige, by 66.5 percent to 30.5 percent.
Appearing before supporters to make his concession speech, the governor recalled his decades of public service.
"For 40 years going back to 1974 ... every waking breath that I’ve taken, every thought I had before I slept, was for Hawaii," Abercrombie said.
The loss by Abercrombie, who was endorsed by Hawaii-born President Barack Obama, marked the first defeat for an incumbent Democratic governor in Hawaii since it was granted statehood in 1959, potentially re-arranging the political landscape before the U.S. general election in November.
"I'm stunned at these numbers. It's a two-to-one margin," said Chad Blair, a political reporter and lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Ige had surged to a double-digit lead in polls even though Abercrombie raised far more money and could point to a thriving state economy.
Abercrombie took a break from campaigning this week to deal with the approach of Iselle.
"The governor got a lot of free airtime," Blair said. "He was in his commander-in-chief role, very much leading the state's response."
All but two polling stations on the east coast of the island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, opened on Saturday morning, election officials said. Iselle weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm before it struck the Big Island on Thursday and later lost more force as it pushed past Hawaii.
As thousands of residents scrambled to clear away debris from the storm, officials warned against complacency given the extent of the disruption and the uncertainty over the path of the bigger storm hurtling toward them.
Hurricane Julio, which was downgraded to a Category 2 storm on Friday, was packing maximum winds of 100 mph (155 kph) as it churned about 415 miles (668 km) off the Big Island city of Hilo and 685 miles (1,100 km) east of Honolulu, the state capital, the National Weather Service said on Saturday.
Forecasts showed Julio probably tracking about 250 miles (402 km) northeast of Hilo on Sunday morning, meteorologists said.
There were no reports of major injuries from Iselle, a relief to a state that depends on tourism. The American Red Cross on Saturday closed its shelters, where more than 150 people had spent the night and where about 2,000 people took refuge at the height of the storm, a spokeswoman said.
About 9,200 customers on the Big Island are still without power, a utility company said, warning outages could extend for days or even weeks.
Before the vote, analysts said that it was unusual for an incumbent governor to struggle given a strong economy, tourism and low unemployment.
A late July poll of 458 likely voters conducted for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser put Ige well ahead of Abercrombie at 54 percent to 36 percent. The incumbent dismissed the numbers, saying that Hawaii polls have often failed to presage actual results.
Supporters say Abercrombie has achieved much, signing gay marriage legislation into law, helping to negotiate a North Shore land conservation deal and championing development in downtown Honolulu.
"At times, I've had to make difficult decisions that weren't always popular," Abercrombie told supporters.
The primary winner will face Independent and Republican candidates in November's general election.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Ken Wills in Kapaau, Hawaii; writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Larry King; editing by Chris Michaud, Larry King)