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.
National Journal
Adam Wollner
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Latest Count: 12 Trump Campaign Staffers Had Contact with Russians
1 days ago
Mueller Seeks Documents from DOJ
4 days ago

Special counsel Robert Mueller "is now demanding documents from the department overseeing his investigation." A source tells ABC News that "Mueller's investigators are keen to obtain emails related to the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the earlier decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the entire matter."

Trump May Be OK with Dropping Mandate Repeal
4 days ago

"President Donald Trump would not insist on including repeal of an Obama-era health insurance mandate in a bill intended to enact the biggest overhaul of the tax code since the 1980s, a senior White House aide said on Sunday. The version of tax legislation put forward by Senate Republican leaders would remove a requirement in former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law that taxes Americans who decline to buy health insurance."

Media Devoting More Resources to Lawmakers’ Sexual Misconduct
4 days ago

"Members of Congress with histories of mistreating women should be extremely nervous. Major outlets, including CNN, are dedicating substantial newsroom resources to investigating sexual harassment allegations against numerous lawmakers. A Republican source told me he's gotten calls from well-known D.C. reporters who are gathering stories about sleazy members."

Trump to Begin Covering His Own Legal Bills
6 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.