HONOLULU—The first image many Hawaii voters saw from Brian Schatz this election year was of his Chinese father-in-law, sitting at the kitchen table, helping the senator's half-Chinese daughter make dumplings.
That ad, which kicked off what has become the fiercest Democratic Senate primary in the country, was about expanding Social Security benefits. But it was also this white Hawaiian's way of conveying that his family is Asian, too.
Neither side in the island state's Senate primary between Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is talking explicitly about race and ethnicity. But in the most diverse state in the nation, ethnicity pervades politics—and it informs, behind-the-scenes, the way campaigns are crafting their messages and talking to voters.
"It's always important to be mindful of ethnicity, because at some level, ethnicity does matter, even today," said Randy Perreira, executive director of the powerful Hawaii Government Employees Association, which has endorsed Schatz.
While Hawaii's population is becoming more mixed, and the lines that the divide groups are beginning to blur, race and ethnicity remain ingrained in Hawaiian politics. There are words and phrases to use, people to get endorsements from, and images to portray, all of which campaign strategists tacitly understand and exploit in Aloha State politics.
Especially this year. Indeed, ethnicity has cast a shadow over the Senate primary from its inception, when longtime Sen. Daniel Inouye, on his deathbed, asked that fellow Japanese-American Hanabusa be appointed to succeed him. Instead, the white governor, Neil Abercrombie, chose Schatz, his lieutenant governor.
That decision has become a central theme of Hanabusa's campaign as she argues that Hawaii's Asian-American voters deserve a choice in who represents them in the Senate and that much of Inouye's network—particularly in the Japanese-American community, known locally as the AJA community—is behind her in that quest.
"The whole basis of the Hanabusa campaign is, 'Inouye picked me,' " said one Democratic strategist. "This is also about one AJA picking another versus a haole governor picking a haole senator."
Jennifer Sabas, Inouye's former chief of staff who now supports Hanabusa's candidacy, said many Japanese-Americans took Abercrombie's decision as an "incredible insult."
These under-the-surface tensions are nothing new. The history of ethnic political divisions in Hawaii goes back to what's known as the Democratic Revolution of 1954, when Asian-American voters teamed up to take on the political power of Hawaii's white plantation owners. Young Japanese-American soldiers—including Inouye—returned home to Hawaii after World War II, went to college, and began running for office, culminating in the 1954 elections where Asian-American Democrats ousted many white Republican politicians.
As a result, all the Asian-American ethnic groups became closely associated with the Democratic Party—a trend that's still generally true today, and contributes to the Republican Party's difficulty in taking hold in Hawaiian politics.
Asians are by far the biggest ethnic group in Hawaii, at just under 40 percent in the 2010 census. White voters are about 23 percent of the population.
But dealing with ethnic groups is particularly complicated here because there's no monolithic "Asian-American vote" in Hawaii: there are AJAs or Japanese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Samoan-Americans, native Hawaiians—the list goes on. All these groups have their own interests, key issues, and even stereotypes their candidates must still overcome.
Further complicating the picture, more and more people, particularly young people, are identifying themselves as mixed-race: Just under a quarter of all Hawaiians did so in 2010.
That dynamic is playing out in the Democratic primary, where Schatz is gaining support from the state's younger, more progressive Democrats and Hanabusa still does well among older and more working-class voters.
"At one time, you could almost count the number of votes you would get from the Japanese-American community, the Korean-American community, the Chinese-Americans and the [native] Hawaiians," said Pat Saiki, the current state Republican chairwoman who served two terms in the U.S. House in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "You could divide it up according to population and guess who would be ahead, but today our young people have become mixed and married to the point where … political leanings are not necessarily determined by your ethnicity but your attitudes."
But things were changing even when Saiki, who's Japanese-American, ran for office. When she ran for governor against the Filipino-American Democrat Ben Cayetano in 1994, Japanese-American voters were forced to choose between their ethnicity and their political party.
Political views won out in the end: Cayetano won the race, becoming Hawaii's first Filipino-American governor. But "it wasn't immediate," Sabas said. "Ben Cayetano won eventually—but the month leading up to that, the AJA community was hugely in the 'undecided' category."
The Schatz campaign made a similar argument in a wide-ranging memo on the race last October, saying that ideology trumps ethnicity in modern-day Hawaiian politics. "Although some pundits have theorized that ethnicity determines Democratic primaries, recent history clearly demonstrates that progressive ideology is the more dominant factor," the memo said.
For campaigns, appealing to different ethnic groups must be done carefully and implicitly.
"It's very circumspect," Sabas said. "It's been more through third-party validators or key phrases."
Perreira and the HGEA are one example of a key endorsement, Sabas said: While Perreira himself isn't Japanese-American, his predecessor at the union was—and many government employees are also Japanese-American voters. For Schatz to pick up that endorsement was a big boon to his chances at winning over that ethnic group of voters.
There are also ways not to handle the issue in Hawaiian political campaigns: Too-overt references to a candidate's ethnicity or origins can backfire. That's a lesson Mufi Hannemann—a Samoan-American independent candidate for governor this year who ran in the 2010 Democratic primary against Abercrombie—learned four years ago.
In the primary, Hannemann released a campaign mailer that asked voters to "Compare and Decide" between himself and Abercrombie. The mailer featured side-by-side biographical facts about each candidate, designed to paint Abercrombie as an outsider: Hannemann was born in Honolulu, for example, while Abercrombie was born in Buffalo, N.Y. The mailer also included each candidate's education and the names of their spouses.
Abercrombie and others immediately called foul.
"He's asking you to compare the fact that he was born in Hawaii and I was born on the mainland," Abercrombie said at the time. " … He even asks you to compare our wives and decide. Compare and decide? What's the message here?"
Those divisions are also relevant in Abercrombie's race this year, in which he faces a tough primary challenge from Japanese-American state Sen. David Ige.
"Hawaii is so different than any other state: It's the only state where we're all minorities," Ige told National Journal in an interview in his Honolulu campaign headquarters, adding that interracial marriage has meant more focus on "finding the best candidates" rather than voting based on ethnicity. Ige had just come from a debate with Abercrombie at the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce.
Despite the still-complicated ethnic politics of the Aloha State, candidates and consultants alike say that the right candidate can get elected today regardless of his or her ethnic background—and that ethnicity is now just a piece of a much bigger puzzle.
"I was a Jewish-American woman from the mainland," said former GOP Gov. Linda Lingle, who served two terms directly before Abercrombie took office. "[Ethnicity] is not an overwhelming deciding factor. Otherwise, I could have never been elected."
This article appears in the July 17, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as In the Toughest Democratic Primary, Ethnicity Matters.