Hanabusa to challenge Schatz in primary for Hawaii Senate seat

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) will challenge Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) in a Democratic primary, a source close to the congresswoman said Tuesday.

ADVERTISEMENT
Schatz was recently appointed to replace Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who died in December at age 88. 

Inouye’s dying wish was for Hanabusa to take his place in the Senate, but Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) instead chose Schatz, who was then his lieutenant governor.

Hanabusa was furious over the snub and spent the last few months weighing whether she should challenge Abercrombie for governor or take on Schatz.

The source close to Hanabusa said the congresswoman was still debating which race to undertake as late as Monday, describing it as a “really tough decision” because she is angrier at Abercrombie but prefers legislating to an executive position — and takes Inouye's wish to see her in the Senate seriously. 

“She gave it a lot of thought. There were a lot of things to keep in mind, but what it finally came down to is she has a lot of legislative experience; that's where her talents are; she's been an outstanding legislator,” said the source. 

“And right before Sen. Inouye died, he did express thoughts that he wanted her in the U.S. Senate, and that's something she definitely thought about.”

Schatz has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as well as the League of Conservation Voters, a major environmental group. He also has ties to President Obama, who remains immensely popular in the state.

Schatz was one of the first in the country to endorse Obama for president in 2006, was part of a draft effort to get him to run and was active in Obama’s Hawaii campaigns. He chaired the state party and acted as an Obama spokesman.

When Schatz was appointed to the Senate, he flew back to Washington, D.C., on Air Force One, as Obama happened to be in the state for vacation. Schatz's chief of staff, Andrew Winer, also has Obama connections, having worked in the Obama administration before moving to Schatz's office.

The senator is off to a quick fundraising start, proving he won't be easy to defeat despite Hanabusa’s much higher profile in the state. 

Schatz raised $1.1 million in his first fundraising quarter in office, while Hanabusa brought in $230,000.

Hanabusa has her own strengths, however. She is close with many of the state's powerful unions, who have been less than thrilled with Abercrombie's tenure in office. Hawaii's Democratic Party is rife with factionalism, and racial politics sometimes play a part in party divisions.

A senior Schatz adviser pushed back on the idea that labor would align with Hanabusa, listing a number of local unions that have backed Schatz.

“We've got a solid lineup of labor, environmental and other support,” said the adviser. “We also have a very solid field and grassroots organization. A lot of that comes from when he was involved in President Obama's campaign. ... We're geared up and ready to go.”

The Schatz adviser downplayed concerns about his lower name identification, pointing out the election is 15 months away and arguing the campaign’s strong fundraising would help it make up ground.

The adviser also said the campaign will be “looking hard” at some of Hanabusa’s budget votes.

The two split on a major vote on sequestration earlier this year: Hanabusa voted against a bill to continue funding the government at current levels for six months because the language included sequestration cuts, while Schatz joined most of his party to vote for it.

Hawaii has a large number of military bases that could see significant cuts in federal spending due to sequestration.

Hanabusa wrote an op-ed in the Hawaii Reporter afterward warning sequestration would “slowly eliminate critical government programs and defund vital operations and services.”

The split could become part of the campaign, though the source close to Hanabusa said she would focus more broadly on the economy and on finding someone who could help Hawaii as much as Inouye did while in Congress.

“The economy is going to be a significant focus, not just the sequester. Hawaii doesn't run as well without Sen. Inouye. We talk about the 'fiscal cliff' — some folks around here talk about the Inouye cliff,” said the source. 

“There's clearly going to be a discussion of their different approaches and different priorities. Schatz has put a lot of emphasis on his environmental record, whereas Rep. Hanabusa has had a lot more substantive interests in more issues.”

This is not the first time the two have run against one another. 

In 2006 both ran for the House: Hanabusa finished in second place, just behind now-Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), while Schatz finished in 6th with 7 percent of the vote.

—Jonathan Easley contributed

Updated at 9:39 a.m. and 2:43 p.m.