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?

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) (L) participates in a ceremonial swearing in event with Vice President Joe Biden, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill, on December 27, 2012 in Washington, DC. Schatz is filling the late Sen. Daniel Inouye's (D-HI) seat in the Senate.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
April 1, 2014, 1:15 a.m.

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 Schatz — who was ap­poin­ted to fill the seat after In­ouye died in 2012 — and 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 in­cum­bent — it 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 sen­at­or — who 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 Hawaii — a ra­cially and eth­nic­ally di­verse state — since 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.

Sarah Mimms contributed to this article.
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