President Obama is ending 2013 in Hawaii, but the new year could bring tumult to the Democratic Party in the Aloha State. Both the governor — and the senator he appointed last year — face credible primary challenges that could help shape the direction of the state party for years to come.
Almost a year ago, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, seeking to lead Democrats into a new era after the state lost more than 71 years of Senate tenure in the course of two weeks, appointed Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz to fill the seat of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye. Now, Abercrombie and Schatz are facing spirited primaries, with the latter being challenged by the woman Inouye wanted to succeed him.
In a memo released in October, Schatz’s campaign boldly proclaimed that he has “assembled an impressive team running an effective, modern, and winning campaign,” and his primary opponent, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, “lacks the modern political and communications infrastructure to wage a successful Senate campaign.” Team Schatz based his claims on the money, endorsements, and consultants he has in his corner and on the grounds that he is the most progressive candidate in the race with a voting record to show for it.
But Hanabusa has remained within the margin of error against Schatz in every poll conducted so far on the Democratic primary, undermining his posturing as the inevitable winner. The most recent poll on the race, an automated survey conducted in October for the website Honolulu Civil Beat, showed Schatz statistically tied with Hanabusa, 38 percent to 36 percent, with a big chunk of voters remaining undecided.
Schatz’s memo catered to pundits who pay close attention to consultants and endorsements, but if all politics is local, nowhere is that more true than in Hawaii. The islands are distant from the U.S. in time, space, and cultural identity, and it’s a place where conventional campaign wisdom doesn’t necessarily hold true.
Hanabusa, who has fallen behind Schatz in terms of endorsements and money, feels the race will be won the same way she won her first House race in 2010, through grassroots fieldwork and getting voters out to the polls. “What I really believe made a different in that race is the field game,” Hanabusa said, because “a lot of politics in Hawaii is relational; it’s about years and years of building trust.”
When asked why she would launch a primary challenge to a sitting senator in a safe Democratic seat, Hanabusa said her decision was “not made easily” and offered an anecdote to explain. “I was in line at the bank and this gentleman came up to me and told me, ‘You’ve really done a lot. Is it because you’ve been around so long?’ and I responded, ‘No, I’ve been around for the same time as Senator Schatz.’ “
Hanabusa and Schatz were both elected to the state Legislature for the first time in 1998, but Hanabusa says her record of achievement during her time in office is “what people are going to look at.” “That’s why I arrived at this decision.”
In the October memo, Schatz’s camp expressed confidence that the race would be won on ideology, not experience, and most certainly not race. But the dividing lines are tough to ignore. Hawaii is majority minority, and U.S. census redistricting data show that whites make up just 27 percent of those over age 18 who are eligible to vote in the state. Asian-Americans, Asian-Pacific islanders, Native Hawaiians, mixed race residents, and other demographic groups account for the other 73 percent.
In the October Civil Beat poll, Schatz led among white voters 55 percent to 28 percent, and among Filipino voters, who represent a growing and increasingly important demographic in the state, although more Filipinos (47 percent) remained undecided than any other ethnic group. Hanabusa, who is of Japanese-American descent, held significant leads among Japanese, Chinese, and Native Hawaiian voters.
But observers have reason to be cautious about polling in Hawaii. Mike Gerhke, a vice president at Benenson Strategy Group, which has polled for Hanabusa since she first ran for Congress, says polling there is complicated by technical and cultural idiosyncrasies unique to the islands. Gerhke says it’s not uncommon to encounter Asian voters, particularly older ones, who “don’t want to say who they voted for.” He says they will talk about issues, but may say “they don’t know” or give false information when asked about votes cast or favored candidates because cultural norms direct them away from such topics. Gerhke’s experience has shown that automated calls can also skew results because issues with accents and pronunciation.
Because the state simply hasn’t had all that many competitive elections, Gerhke also points out that the Hawaii Democratic Party’s voter file is in “terrible shape.” The age of many older voters is missing, so “you’d like to be able to know that you can weight by age, but can’t always trust that when working in Hawaii.” The file also only includes phone numbers for roughly 40 percent of registered voters, making polling and voter contact work by campaigns more cumbersome than usual.
On top of competing with each other for votes, the two candidates will also be battling these realities and a strong case of voter apathy which has plagued the state for decades. Hawaii consistently has the lowest voter turnout rate in the country, fueled by the fact that almost a third of those who are eligible to vote aren’t registered. In 2008, a banner year for Democratic turnout nationwide, just 48.8 percent of Hawaii’s voting eligible population showed up at the polls when Obama, the state’s kama’aina, or native son, was on the ballot. In the competitive Democratic Senate primary between Mazie Hirono and Ed Case in August 2012, just over 233,000 ballots were cast, representing only one in five eligible voters.
Low voter participation may be attributable in part to Native Hawaiian and Hawaii residents’ weak identification with state and federal governments established just a few decades ago. Hawaii only became a state in 1959, two years before Obama was born, and movements calling for Native Hawaiian sovereignty still gather a surprising amount of support. In a poll conducted by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser earlier this month, 44 percent of voters said they would support either the creation of a sovereign Native Hawaiian nation integrated as a part of the United States, similar to the status granted to Native American tribes, or as a separate nation independent under the United Nations.
Despite these obstacles, both candidates have expressed optimism that they can mobilize voters on the ground and engage people in the race, a role in which labor endorsements will be key. Schatz has the backing of 28 local unions, including the state’s largest union, the Hawaii Government Employees Union. But Hanabusa’s maintains that her ties to the labor community run deep, and she is confident she’ll remain competitive in that arena.
Hanabusa, a labor lawyer for over 30 years before she embarked on her first campaign for the state Senate, said, “Some of [the unions] endorsed before I got into the race, and have been getting some pressure from D.C. from international unions who endorsed Brian. But many of them have said to me ‘we’re friends.’ We have endorsed but that doesn’t mean we’ll be out there pounding the pavement,” noting that an endorsement is no guarantee that all their members will vote for Schatz.
Hanabusa’s union support was bolstered last week by an endorsement from the ILUW Local 142. The local represents blue-collar agricultural and warehouse workers and has a presence on every island. Hanabusa has also hired John Salsbury of AFSCME as her campaign manager, who previously worked on her 2010 House race and plans to build on her grassroots field efforts from the last two cycles.
Hanabusa’s camp has also been critical of Schatz’s decision to host outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Hawaii for a fundraiser in January. Bloomberg has been notoriously harsh on Big Apple unions, and Hanabusa’s camp feels the move raises questions about whether Schatz is more committed to raising money than sticking to his principles.
On top of his labor backing, Schatz has an impressive lineup of endorsements. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and MoveOn.org have all thrown their support to him. The league went on the air with its first TV ad supporting Schatz in November.
But two Senate endorsements are noticeably missing from Schatz’s list, and it remains to be seen whether Hawaii voters will look toward the preferences of the mainland, or whether they’ll look to the guidance of local leaders including former Sen. Daniel Akaka and Inouye’s family, who are supporting Hanabusa.
Abercrombie, the state’s first-term governor and a former congressman, faces a primary challenge himself in 2014. A Honolulu Civil Beat poll conducted in October showed Abercrombie with a 39 percent approval rating. Democratic state Sen. David Ige, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, announced he would challenge Abercrombie in July and has already received the backing of two former governors, Ben Cayetano and George Ariyoshi, who have together led Hawaii for 20 of the 54 years since it gained statehood. Meanwhile, Obama endorsed Abercrombie last Friday, which should give a boost to the embattled incumbent. But Obama hasn’t yet chimed in on the Senate primary.
Schatz is framing himself as the most progressive candidate in the race and points to his record on entitlements, small business, the environment, marriage equality, and choice. Hanabusa, meanwhile, has placed a bigger emphasis on military and veterans’ issues, which may not strike observers as a sure bet to fire up her party’s liberal base.
Hawaii, however, is home to 11 military bases, and the federal government sends more defense dollars per capita to Hawaii than any other state. A poll conducted by the Global Strategy Group in the final week of September showed 50 percent of voters said their family income was tied to the federal, state, or local government, and 39 percent said their family income is tied to the military. Three out of four respondents described the military as “very important” to the state’s economy, underscoring the anxiety surrounding the flow of federal and defense dollars to the state in the wake of Inouye’s passing and the sequestration cuts to the federal budget.
Hanabusa voted against the recent budget deal crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on the grounds that it balanced the budget on the backs of the kupuna, an affectionate term for Hawaii’s elderly, federal workers, military retirees, and the unemployed. Her objection put her at odds with Schatz, who voted for the deal.
Hanabusa felt on its face a budget compromise was a good thing, but that the devil was in the details, and so too could be the case in her Senate contest against Schatz. From afar this race appears settled, but up close it’s anything but.