Deathbed wish not enough in Hawaii

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The ghost of the late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) might not be enough to put Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D) in the Senate.

Hanabusa is challenging Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the state’s former lieutenant governor who was appointed to Inouye’s seat in 2012, despite the beloved senator’s deathbed request that his protégé, Hanabusa, replace him.

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While the congresswoman has Inouye’s blessing and the support of his political network, Schatz has been able to leverage his appointment into plum committee assignments and huge fundraising figures. Now, with one month to go until the primary, he appears to have the unlikely edge in the bitter race. 

“It’s clearly not simply about the legacy of Sen. Inouye,” said University of Hawaii professor emeritus Neal Milner. “[Hanabusa’s] figured out, as have the voters, that there’s a leap from admiring someone as a hero and mourning his loss, and actually voting for a candidate for that reason.”

Hanabusa and her allies insist the race is close and are looking to show that she’s the more serious and effective legislator ahead of the Aug. 9 Saturday primary. 

But unfortunately for the congresswoman, there is little daylight between the two on policy, and her campaign tactics suggest she knows she needs to make up ground in the campaign. At a Monday night debate, she was the aggressor, looking to take Schatz down a peg and shake up the race.

FAVORITE SONS SPLIT

Hanabusa is looking to wring every drop of support out of Inouye’s network. She has the backing of his widow, as well as of former Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and a number of former governors, and argues she’s best equipped to carry on their legacy and that their endorsements carry heavy weight with Democratic voters. 

“The one thing Hawaii does do is have strong cultural values about our kupuna, our seniors and elders, especially those that have made the ultimate sacrifices to put us where we are,” Hanabusa told The Hill.

But one big-name former Hawaiian is in Schatz’s corner. President Obama has endorsed Schatz, who served as his state director on the president’s 2008 campaign. The senator featured the state’s native son in a recent ad, and many Obama alumni are helping Schatz with the race.

“He’s tremendously popular in Hawaii; we all feel very strongly about him, not just because he’s from Hawaii, but he has the right views on policy,” Schatz told The Hill.

Schatz has also out organized Hanabusa in Washington. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is in his corner, as is the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the League of Conservation Voters, MoveOn.org and the Progressive Campaign Change Committee.

With Reid’s help, he secured three plum committee assignments that he’s used to build a resume for this run: the Commerce, Energy and Natural Resources, and Indian Affairs committees.

Schatz has also crushed Hanabusa in fundraising, with $2.4 million in the bank to her $1 million at the end of March. Hanabusa has the backing of EMILY’s List, a group that backs pro-abortion rights Democratic women, but has otherwise not been able to generate much support within the Democratic establishment.

“Schatz is winning the D.C. game. He has more money,” admitted one Hanabusa ally.

That advantage has allowed him to blanket the state with positive ads, while Hanabusa was mostly silent, outspending her 3-to-1 on air. 

He’s also been able to win significant union support, splitting a crucial part of the coalition she’ll need to win the race.

NO SUNLIGHT BETWEEN TWO DEMOCRATS

One thing the race is emphatically not about is major policy differences. The two agree on most issues, though their emphases are different, and they disagree about who’s the more effective legislator.

Schatz paints himself as the “progressive” in the race and spends a lot of his time talking about the environment and the welfare state, especially Social Security, while Hanabusa focuses more on military issues and what she says is a more robust track record.

“I’ve prioritized clean energy both at the national level and in terms of what the Hawaii clean energy initiative has been able to accomplish. … Colleen certainly checks the box but doesn’t prioritize this to the extent that I have,” said Schatz. “We’re in total agreement about the need to make sure there are continued investments in defense. I’ve been able to bring key appropriations to bring money behind the policy statements.”

“I don’t think we differ that much in terms of policy,” argued Hanabusa, who said Schatz was unfairly taking credit for the clean energy initiative she helped pass as state Senate president.

Schatz has drilled hard on Social Security, hitting Hanabusa for voting in favor of an amendment backing the Simpson-Bowles plan to reduce the deficit partly by changing benefits. She says he’s mischaracterizing her vote and that she is a strong supporter of the program.

Hanabusa has painted Schatz as an ineffective legislator especially hard in the campaign’s closing days. She called him a political “survivor” in a recent debate when asked what she respected about him before running down his record.

Schatz pushed back — his latest ad says, “He’s proven he can get things done, bringing home the resources Hawaii needs,” pointing out he’s the only new senator who’s chairing two subcommittees.

A COMPLEX AND DIVIDED STATE

Schatz has led in all recent public and private polling, which has varied from slim single-digit leads in some polls to solid leads around 20 points in others.

But in years past, pollsters have wildly missed the mark in the state, a history Hanabusa is banking on.

“The problem [with] people on the mainland is they don’t know how to read Hawaii and how to poll Hawaii, and those who’ve been around admit that Hawaii is very difficult,” she said. “I have always been behind in polls, but it’s never panned out that way [on Election Day].”

A big part of that difficulty is Hawaii’s complex culture. The diverse mixture of white voters, Native Hawaiian, and multiple and distinct Asian populations means it’s very difficult for any pollster to find the right sample. Marked cultural differences between the different islands also plays a big role, though the state’s long-standing ethnic political divisions have waned some in recent years.

Schatz’s campaign has looked to minimize any ethnic components of the race. His first spot featured his multi-ethnic, multi-generational family, including his wife’s Chinese-American parents, who live with them.

The Anglo Schatz will likely do well with white voters and those living in and near Honolulu, while Hanabusa, who is Japanese-American and represented an area that had a large Native Hawaiian population, needs to run up her numbers with those groups on the neighboring islands that comprise her House district.

Hanabusa is also hoping Schatz’s appointment by embattled Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) hurts him. Abercrombie is facing a tough primary of his own and now appears more likely than Schatz to be at the risk of losing.

“The people of Hawaii realize Brian was appointed by a very unpopular governor he was LG for. They tie the two of them together,” Hanabusa said. “He got the vote of one person, the governor of the state of Hawaii. Now the people are going to choose.”

Schatz sought to put distance between the two. He’s backing Abercrombie, but when asked about that support, said he’s “focused singularly on my own race” before changing the subject.

Ultimately, most observers expect Schatz to win, though many say they think the race will be closer than some polls have indicated.

“Schatz has an easier road. But I don’t think the election by any means is over,” said Milner.