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A Dying Wish and a Presidential Endorsement: The Crazy Intense Hawaii Senate Primary Race A Dying Wish and a Presidential Endorsement: The Crazy Intense Hawaii ...

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Politics

A Dying Wish and a Presidential Endorsement: The Crazy Intense Hawaii Senate Primary Race

Sen. Brian Schatz got the official endorsement of President Obama and Harry Reid. Will it matter?

Incumbent Brian Schatz(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

photo of Elahe Izadi
April 1, 2014

We all know about the intra-party fighting among Republicans. But mosey on over to Hawaii (via, um, plane?) and you'll see a political knock-down, drag-out fight among Democrats over the Senate seat once occupied by Hawaii's revered Daniel Inouye.

The two candidates don't even have one nice thing to say about each other!

The primary contest between incumbent Brian Schatzwho was appointed to fill the seat after Inouye died in 2012and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa kicked up a notch Monday with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid officially endorsing Schatz. 

 

It's wholly predictable that the Democratic establishment would back an incumbentit would have been out of the norm for Reid or Obama to do otherwise. And Schatz chaired the Draft Obama Hawaii Campaign back in 2008, while Hanabusa initially supported Hillary Clinton. Schatz said he received a call from Obama last week to let him know about the endorsement. 

But recall Inouye's dying wish that Hanabusa, a longtime ally of his, be appointed by Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie to fill his seat after his passing. The popular senatorwho had represented Hawaii in Washington ever since it became a state—even sent the governor a personal letter to that effect, which was eventually released to the media by Inouye's staff to make it clear what the dying senator wanted to happen with his seat.

Abercrombie went with his lieutenant governor instead. "I make this decision with full confidence that Brian's appointment is in the best interest of the state of Hawaii and the nation," Abercrombie said at the time.

Now, polling has been mixed and all over the place; a February Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll had Hanabusa leading Schatz by 8 points. Other polls show a dead heat. Polling is difficult in Hawaii, so all numbers should be viewed skeptically, which makes this race even more dramatic. Schatz does have a fundraising advantage, having raised twice as much money as Hanabusa over the entire cycle thus far.

Progressives have mostly supported Schatz. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee backed him, calling the race "the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party against the corporate wing." Democracy for America has also backed Schatz.

But EMILY's List supports Hanabusa, who has the endorsement of Inouye's widow and former Sen. Daniel Akaka.

The race is emblematic of Hawaii's complex politics, including generational, ethnic, and political divides. Schatz is the first white senator to represent Hawaiia racially and ethnically diverse statesince the 1960s. And when Abercrombie appointed Schatz, he noted his age, 41, as a positive in that he can build seniority over time, while Hanabusa, 62, couldn't. Hanabusa has said such comments are insulting to voters.

Despite Inouye's popularity and Hanabusa's name recognition, an Obama endorsement will go much further in Hawaii than in any other state. It's the president's home state, where he has the highest approval ratings of anywhere in the country.

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