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For Abercrombie, Senate Primary Is a Chance to Make His Mark For Abercrombie, Senate Primary Is a Chance to Make His Mark

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For Abercrombie, Senate Primary Is a Chance to Make His Mark

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (right) applauded as he announced he was appointing Brian Schatz to the Senate in December. Schatz can count on his support in the primary against Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in 2014.(AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, may not be running for governor of her state, but she's still running against Gov. Neil Abercrombie as she gears up for a 2014 Senate primary.

Nothing official has been worked out yet, but Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz will be able to count on strong support from the governor who appointed him to the Senate over Hanabusa in December. In public, Abercrombie has been mostly non-responsive about the Senate race, but according to an adviser, the governor plans to give as much help as he can to Schatz.

"He's clearly going to stand behind his pick," the adviser said, noting that concrete planning about how to do that will come later. "To the degree and extent there are opportunities to support one another, that will clearly be the case," the Abercrombie adviser continued. "We haven't talked about endorsements or anything, but it's clearly more than implied."

Abercrombie, 74, believes one of his missions as the titular head of the state Democratic Party is to inject more youth into the ranks of major office-holders. It’s a slight irony for the nation’s second-oldest governor, but it’s one of the reasons he appointed Schatz, 40, to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye's vacant seat. (Abercrombie later filled the lieutenant governor position Schatz vacated with a 41-year-old, former state legislator Shan Tsutsui.) Schatz is part of Abercrombie's legacy -- not only as one of the governor's appointments -- but because he's now the leading representative of one of Abercrombie's projects.

Inouye was first elected to the Senate almost 10 years before Schatz was born. "Schatz is part of the new generation of leaders that are making that transition from the Inouye era," the Abercrombie adviser said. Inouye had requested in a deathbed letter that Hanabusa replace him, but Abercrombie decided to go with Schatz. After flirting with a run against Abercrombie himself, Hanabusa decided to oppose Schatz for a full Senate term.

Abercrombie's campaign is already up and running, thanks to those early rumors about Hanabusa's gubernatorial ambitions. Without another challenger on the horizon, that could free up Abercrombie's political operation to help win support for Schatz in the Democratic primary. It's not clear what that will mean yet. Having a governor in your corner never hurts, though Abercrombie does have some baggage; in his first term, Abercrombie has suffered from some poor approval ratings and had rocky relations with some unions, whose support is critical in a Democratic primary. Schatz is busy making his own appeals to those groups, as is Hanabusa.

Meanwhile, Hanabusa has her own big-name supporter in the form of Inouye, whose widow gave a quick endorsement as Hanabusa announced her Senate campaign. That day, Hanabusa told local news outlets it would be "up to voters" to decide what Inouye's wish to have her in the Senate meant, saying "no one can dispute the fact that he felt strongly enough to say that he wanted to entrust Hawaii to me."

Inouye essentially controlled the Hawaii Democratic Party for decades, and the extent to which Inouye's vast influence and network survived him could be as critical an issue for Hanabusa as Abercrombie's support is for Schatz. Neither candidate is likely to make their supporters the central element of the Democratic primary campaign, but Schatz and Hanabusa have had their biggest advocates lined up for some time.

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