Hawaii’s Abercrombie Loses, but His Appointees Look Likely to Survive Challenges

The governor falls far short in Democratic primary, but his legacy could be sealed with wins by Schatz and Tsutsui.

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
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Aug. 10, 2014, 1:39 a.m.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Aber­crom­bie suffered a massive per­son­al de­feat in the state’s Demo­crat­ic primary Sat­urday, los­ing the first step of his reelec­tion bid by more than 2-to-1. But Aber­crom­bie’s youth­ful polit­ic­al legacies may have sur­vived him.

Aber­crom­bie, 76, had an in­con­gru­ous mis­sion as the second-old­est gov­ernor in the coun­try: to in­ject more youth in­to the top ranks of the Hawaii Demo­crat­ic Party. And though he lost big, two ma­jor ap­pointees in their 40s, in­clud­ing Sen. Bri­an Schatz, have fared much bet­ter against chal­lengers in their 60s.

Schatz’s race is too close to call, but the Sen­ate’s second-young­est mem­ber led Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the Demo­crat­ic primary by nearly 1,800 with votes from just two storm-delayed pre­cincts left to count after Sat­urday. Mean­while, Lt. Gov. Shan Tsut­sui, the man Aber­crom­bie ap­poin­ted to suc­ceed Schatz as his No. 2, cleared his primary chal­lenge eas­ily.

That’s a big foothold for a youth move­ment in a state whose top polit­ic­al cast re­mained un­changed for a long time be­fore this elec­tion cycle. Re­mark­ably, at this time two years ago, the sep­tua­gen­ari­an Aber­crom­bie was the young one among Hawaii’s top of­fi­cials, com­pared with multi-dec­ade Sen­ate vet­er­an Daniel Akaka and the un­of­fi­cial head of the state Demo­crat­ic Party, Sen. Daniel In­ouye, who spent nearly a half-cen­tury in the Sen­ate and asked be­fore he died in 2012 to have Hanabusa suc­ceed him.

There are some styl­ist­ic and ideo­lo­gic­al dif­fer­ences between the young­er and older sec­tions of Hawaii’s Demo­crat­ic Party, though Schatz and Hanabusa would have voted very sim­il­arly in the Sen­ate. But Aber­crom­bie noted re­peatedly that Schatz would have a longer time to build up seni­or­ity and aid a post-In­ouye re­build­ing of the con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion.

“That’s his com­mit­ment in be­ing in of­fice,” an Aber­crom­bie ad­viser told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view last year. “He wants to be a trans­ition­al gov­ernor for gen­er­a­tion­al change.”

Aber­crom­bie is not go­ing to be in of­fice much longer after los­ing the gubernat­ori­al primary to state Sen. Dav­id Ige, him­self a three-dec­ade state le­gis­lat­or. But the poster boys for Aber­crom­bie’s Demo­crat­ic youth move­ment may lessen the sting with their primary per­form­ances.

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