Why Hawaii Democrats Aren’t United This Holiday Season

The Aloha State is home to competitive primaries for Senate and governor.

Governor-elect Neil Abercrombie (2nd L) of Hawaii speaks alongside fellow Governor-elects Dan Malloy (L) of Connecticut, Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, Peter Shumlin (2nd R) of Vermont and , speak to the media outside of the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC, December 2, 2010.
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
Dec. 23, 2013, 12:20 p.m.

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.

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