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Is Brian Schatz Already Winning Hawaii's Invisible Primary? Is Brian Schatz Already Winning Hawaii's Invisible Primary?

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Is Brian Schatz Already Winning Hawaii's Invisible Primary?

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, will run in a primary against Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz in 2014, according to sources close to Hanabusa. But Schatz got off to a head start with important Aloha State Democratic donors.(AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

photo of Scott Bland
April 25, 2013

A competitive Hawaii Senate race is all but official. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and other outlets reported Tuesday that Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa has decided to challenge appointed Sen. Brian Schatz and try to make good on the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s deathbed request that Hanabusa replace him the Senate. Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Schatz, then the lieutenant governor, instead, prompting months of deliberations as Hanabusa weighed her next political steps.

But unofficial preparations for this matchup were underway in that time, and Schatz used that time to his advantage. A National Journal analysis of Schatz’s campaign finance records from the last three months shows that the senator garnered support from dozens of influential Hawaiian donors, including over a quarter-million dollars from a key group that helped finance Hanabusa’s most recent major campaign.


According to the Federal Election Commission filings, Schatz received first-quarter donations from at least 96 individuals who also gave to Hanabusa in 2009 or 2010, when they provided a major infusion of cash to Hanabusa’s last competitive campaign. Schatz has already raised $285,000 from that group, a powerful collection of attorneys, corporate executives, and other regular Hawaii Democratic donors. Many wrote checks for at least $5,000, meaning not all of it is available for the primary. But it is still a potent show of support.

It surpasses the $225,000 Hanabusa raised from those common donors in a full election cycle three years ago, when she was first locked in a special election with Democrat Ed Case and Republican Charles Djou and then faced Djou one-on-one in the fall -- though Hanabusa could certainly draw more money from the same people for a statewide race. However, she only drew about $36,000 from those donors in early 2013.

Overall, those “common donors” comprised less than 8 percent of Hanabusa’s big-donor base but provided almost 16 percent of her itemized individual contributions in 2009 and 2010. This year, they comprised about 15 percent of Schatz’s first set of itemized donors but gave him 30 percent of his total big-dollar haul.

Twenty-three of those “common donors” donated to Hanabusa, giving her the $36,000 mentioned above, while also cutting Schatz checks in the first three months of 2013. Schatz collected $69,000 from them. Only one of those 23 gave more to Hanabusa than to Schatz. Overall, Schatz raised over $1.1 million in the first quarter, with over $950,000 coming from individual donations over $250. Hanabusa raised about $230,000 -- with about $173,000 itemized from individuals -- in the same time period

Hanabusa was not fundraising aggressively in the first quarter as she mulled the next steps of her political career, and she will undoubtedly begin pulling in larger sums immediately to finance her Senate run. Moreover, Hawaii’s big-dollar donor crowd is relatively small and would naturally open its wallets for a new senator before primary battle lines were drawn. But Schatz’s camp argues that his early fundraising locked down a primary seal of approval and a permanent advantage among the state’s major donors.

In an email, a Schatz adviser wrote that the senator “effectively coalesced big-dollar support behind him, and this trend will only grow as we move into (the second fundraising quarter) and beyond.” He noted that most of the common contributors gave more to Schatz than to Hanabusa.

“Our donor base is motivated,” the Schatz adviser continued, “and, for the most part, it will not move to Rep. Hanabusa and these donors will no longer split even smaller contributions.”

A source close to Hanabusa’s campaign said Schatz’s first-quarter results have no bearing on where Democratic donors’ support will be once the race gets going. Given that she was also thinking of opposing Abercrombie in the gubernatorial primary, it didn’t make sense to lock down federal contributions since re-raising the money into a state campaign account would have been complicated. Plus, the source said donors used their dollars to try and exert leverage on Hanabusa’s career move over the last few months.

“A number of people and organizations in Hawaii were strongly encouraging her to run for governor,” the Hanabusa campaign source said. “They were using a little leverage, giving money to Schatz, to push her toward Abercrombie. What happens now that she’s actually in the race is still open to debate. We’ll see what she does in fundraising this quarter and getting people supporting her on the record.”

Hanabusa has other fundraising strengths to consider as well, including a likely endorsement from EMILY’s List and the gobs of bundled national donations that would come with it. “Should she make her run official, the EMILY’s List community would be thrilled to support another progressive woman leader from Hawaii in the U.S. Senate,” EMILY’s List press secretary Marcy Stech wrote to the Honolulu Civil Beat and other media outlets Tuesday.

Still, the reactions of Hawaii’s community of big Democratic donors will be important. One first-quarter donor to both Schatz and Hanabusa, retired attorney Jeffrey Watanabe, warned that donors’ eventual decisions may not be black and white. Watanabe was a close ally and one-time employee of Inouye’s who helped deliver the senator’s deathbed letter to Abercrombie, requesting that he appoint Hanabusa, in December. But he’s also opened his home for Schatz fundraisers multiple times. Speaking the day before news of Hanabusa’s decision broke, he said he hoped not to have to choose between the two and suggested he and others might not really have to.

“Like Colleen, a lot of us are sitting on the edge trying to figure out where people are going,” Watanabe said in a Monday interview. “What happens in Hawaii is interesting, it’s a relational environment as opposed to a transactional one,” Watanabe continued. “You take the attitude of, you support your friends, and when friends oppose one another, that’s their problem, not yours. So people give to both.”

Also before Hanabusa’s decision came out, state lobbyist John Radcliffe, a donor to both candidates in the past but only to Schatz so far this year, wrote in an email that early donations showed that “many politically active people are lining up in support of Senator Schatz, Governor Abercrombie, and Congresswomen Hanabusa and Gabbard to remain in their current offices.”

Another longtime Hawaii Democratic donor, who wished to remain anonymous to share his thoughts freely, also sounded unsure about what would happen after Hanabusa’s decision to run for Senate. “To a certain extent I’m disappointed because while I was a supporter of Sen. Inouye, now that the decision has been made to have Brian Schatz be our senator, it’s not a choice I think was unreasonable or bad for Hawaii,” said the donor, who worried about the state losing Schatz’s nascent seniority.

“I think most people will be surprised by her decision” and it will take some time for the donor community to sort things out, the donor continued.

Hanabusa’s campaign had yet to fully activate its fundraising operations last quarter, and she has a critical national fundraising connection along with a long list of past supporters to tap. One of the major questions of the next three months will be how effectively she can gather big bucks from the donors who financed her three years ago -- and made big pledges to Schatz in between then and now.

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