Hawaii’s Primary: The Last Chance for an Incumbent Senator to Lose

Legacy, ethnicity, and seniority are all at stake in Hawaii’s primary Saturday, which could see a sitting senator lose.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 14: Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks during a news conference in the Capitol to announce the newly formed Senate Climate Change Task Force.
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Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Aug. 8, 2014, 1 a.m.

After vic­tor­ies this week in Kan­sas and Ten­ness­ee, Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors suc­cess­fully made it through the 2014 primary sea­son without los­ing to a single tea-party-backed chal­lenger. But in the lone com­pet­it­ive Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate primary of the cycle, one in­cum­bent finds him­self in very real danger of los­ing his seat.

Far from the main­land, Sen. Bri­an Schatz of Hawaii is locked in a nail-biter with Rep. Colleen Hanabusa head­ing in­to a Sat­urday primary. But Hanabusa doesn’t see the race through the tra­di­tion­al in­cum­bent-chal­lenger lens.

“This is an elec­tion that’s im­port­ant be­cause this is the first time that the people have a choice,” Hanabusa said in an in­ter­view. “Be­cause up un­til now, he had a vote of one, and that was Neil Aber­crom­bie.”

As the late Sen. Daniel In­ouye’s health de­teri­or­ated to­ward the end of 2012, the gi­ant of Hawaii polit­ics sent a let­ter to Gov. Neil Aber­crom­bie, a fel­low Demo­crat, ask­ing him to ap­point Hanabusa to fill his seat in the up­per cham­ber upon his death. Aber­crom­bie, however, spurned In­ouye’s re­quest and in­stead sent Schatz, his young­er lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, to Wash­ing­ton.

The con­tro­versy helped to shape the Sen­ate race at the out­set, and while there’s much more to the cam­paign than Aber­crom­bie’s de­cision, it still looms over the race.

“Politi­cians can some­times make cam­paigns about them­selves, but Sen­at­or Schatz has al­ways fo­cused re­lent­lessly on what he can do to help hard­work­ing fam­il­ies in Hawaii and the is­sues that af­fect them,” Schatz cam­paign spokes­wo­man Mea­ghan Smith said.

In the re­li­ably Demo­crat­ic state, the 41-year-old Schatz has at­temp­ted to cast him­self as the more pro­gress­ive can­did­ate and the voice of a new gen­er­a­tion. One of the reas­ons Aber­crom­bie cited for passing over Hanabusa was Schatz’s re­l­at­ive youth, which gave him an op­por­tun­ity to build up more seni­or­ity in the Sen­ate. In­ouye and former Sen. Daniel Akaka had more than 70 com­bined years of seni­or­ity at the end of 2012; Hawaii has less than four now between Schatz and Sen. Mazie Hirono.

“His cam­paign has ap­pealed to people who are look­ing to see this trans­ition in Hawaii take place in terms of our polit­ic­al lead­er­ship,” said Randy Per­reira, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Hawaii Gov­ern­ment Em­ploy­ees As­so­ci­ation, which en­dorsed Schatz. “For many years, we had the good be­ne­fit of hav­ing a very strong pres­ence in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., with Sen­at­or Dan In­ouye. But we only had the sen­at­or on this earth for a fixed peri­od of time and now that he is gone, we’re now look­ing at the next gen­er­a­tion.”

Hanabusa, on the oth­er hand, has leaned heav­ily on the ex­per­i­ence she gained not only in Con­gress but in 12 years in the Hawaii state Sen­ate.

“Bri­an Schatz and I began our le­gis­lat­ive polit­ic­al ca­reers at ex­actly the same time. So what people can do is meas­ure us by what we have done in the same peri­od of time.” Hanabusa said. Then, she ad­ded, voters can ask them­selves, “Who do you think can best rep­res­ent you and who do you trust to be there to carry out Hawaii’s val­ues and main­tain the unique­ness that is Hawaii?”

The race has been neck-and-neck ever since Hanabusa of­fi­cially entered in May 2013. Polling is of­ten sparse and un­re­li­able in Hawaii, and two pub­lic sur­veys con­duc­ted in late Ju­ly were com­plete op­pos­ites: A live-caller poll con­duc­ted for the Hon­olulu Star-Ad­vert­iser and Hawaii News Now found Schatz down 8 per­cent­age points to Hanabusa, while an auto­mated poll com­mis­sioned by the Hon­olulu Civil Beat showed Schatz lead­ing by eight. At the very least, they un­der­line that Schatz doesn’t en­joy the usu­al over­whelm­ing ad­vant­ages of in­cum­bency.

The state’s eth­nic makeup will play an im­port­ant role in shap­ing the con­test’s out­come. The Hanabusa cam­paign is bank­ing on the Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an com­munity to come out in full force for her. Asi­ans make up just un­der 40 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in Hawaii, while whites, who are go­ing to vote more strongly for Schatz, com­prise roughly a quarter of the pop­u­la­tion.

While Hanabusa in­her­ited much of In­ouye’s polit­ic­al net­work, Schatz has en­joyed the sup­port of sev­er­al na­tion­al fig­ures. A num­ber of his Sen­ate col­leagues, in­clud­ing Harry Re­id and Eliza­beth War­ren, have en­dorsed him, as has the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters, and former Vice Pres­id­ent Al Gore. Schatz is also backed by a few power­ful loc­al labor uni­ons, while EMILY’s List is be­hind Hanabusa.

“I don’t think our loc­al pop­u­la­tion over­all is that to the left,” said In­ouye’s former chief of staff, Jen­nifer Sabas, who is back­ing Hanabusa. “I think it’s a little more bal­anced and clearly more nu­anced.”

Pres­id­ent Obama even made a rare in­ter­ven­tion in­to the race, en­dors­ing Schatz — who headed Obama’s Hawaii cam­paign dur­ing the 2008 primar­ies — in late March, which the sen­at­or has em­phas­ized in a sev­er­al tele­vi­sion ads.

The race has also at­trac­ted more than $1.3 mil­lion in out­side spend­ing, but in a de­par­ture from oth­er con­ten­tious in­tra­party battles around the coun­try this year, it’s all been pos­it­ive. The li­on’s share of that total has come from the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters and EMILY’s List, both of which have aired TV ads tout­ing their pre­ferred can­did­ates.

But Hanabusa still ques­tioned why LCV, which en­dorsed Schatz be­fore she of­fi­cially de­clared her can­did­acy, de­cided to spend a half-mil­lion dol­lars on the race when she com­piled a 95 per­cent life­time rat­ing with the en­vir­on­ment­al group. (Schatz has a per­fect 100 per­cent score.)

“So why would an or­gan­iz­a­tion spend that kind of money in Hawaii against someone who has — you know, it’s like hav­ing the dif­fer­ence between an A and what they may per­ceive to be as an A-plus. That just doesn’t make any sense,” Hanabusa said. 

LCV spokes­man Jeff Gohringer said “the en­dorse­ment was solely about Bri­an Schatz’s lead­er­ship on cli­mate change.”

In a last-minute twist to the con­test, the weath­er may play a dis­rupt­ive role. Hur­ricane Is­elle hit Hawaii on Thursday, and Hur­ricane Ju­lio is ap­proach­ing as well, al­though it isn’t likely to pass through un­til Sunday. Both cam­paigns this week were push­ing sup­port­ers to cast their bal­lots early.

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