Schatz must navigate tough Democratic primary in Hawaii to secure his place

Less than 24 hours after being appointed to the Senate last December, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) was boarding Air Force One and chatting with President Obama on his way to Washington.

His travel accommodations have become decidedly less regal since settling into the Senate, but Schatz said he is prepared to make the trip for decades to come if he can first get through a competitive Democratic primary next year against Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

If Schatz wins, he will have to go before voters again in 2016 to secure a six-year term.

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“This is all I want to do, is serve Hawaii. And if the people will allow me, I intend to serve for as long as I possibly can,” Schatz said when asked if he could see himself serving out a term similar to the near 50-year tenure of his predecessor and party colleague, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye.

Last December, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) appointed Schatz to fill the vacancy left open by Inouye’s death. 

The timing coincided with an Obama vacation trip to his home state. And when Obama cut the trip short in order to resume fiscal cliff negotiations, Schatz hitched a ride on the presidential plane back to Washington so he could be sworn in and begin voting.

“You never know, that may be the last time I fly on Air Force One,” he said. A photo from the trip still hangs in his front office.

Schatz came to Washington after six years of supporting Obama and with nearly a decade of work in the Hawaii legislature under his belt. 

After serving eight years in the state legislature, Schatz helped launch a movement in 2006 that urged Obama, then a senator representing Illinois, to run for president. Schatz went on to serve as an Obama campaign spokesman in 2008. 

Obama continues to maintain high approval ratings in the state. Schatz said he does not think his service for Obama granted him any implicit endorsement, but that will not deter him from tapping into the same voter base this election cycle. 

“People know that I am a big supporter of the president,” he said. “People know that in D.C., and people know that in Hawaii. And we’ll be making the case to people who support President Obama that I am the right person in the Senate to support his agenda.”

Today, Schatz’s travel accommodations have been downgraded from Air Force One to commercial airlines. His schedule usually begins on a Sunday night and stretches into late Monday morning on a red-eye to D.C. He passes through six time zones on his nine-and-a-half hour flight, which he makes two or three times a month.

“The best advice I was given was to drink copious amounts of water,” he said.

It is the typical schedule of any Hawaii lawmaker in Washington and one Schatz seems willing to keep. Schatz, 40, is the second youngest member of the Senate. He is only two years older than Inouye was when he was first elected to the chamber in 1962.

Inouye’s seniority and his role as chairman of the Appropriations Committee brought an outsized influence to one of the smallest and most isolated states in the country.

The power of seniority is not lost on Schatz. With the death of Inouye and the retirement of Hawaii’s other senator Daniel Akaka (D) last year, the state lost more than 70 years of combined experience.

“I have good friends who are members of the incoming freshman class and also some good friends and supporters who are in the leadership,” Schatz said. “We are climbing that seniority hill again.”

Abercrombie, on multiple occasions in a brief conversation, described Schatz’s appointment as ushering in a “new generation of leadership”— a not so subtle reference to the fact that the senator’s primary opponent is more than 20 years his senior.

Abercrombie’s decision to appoint Schatz, his lieutenant governor at the time, came over the specific wishes of Inouye, who had recommended Hanabusa for the position. 

Hanabusa’s campaign has already used the snub to its advantage. Inouye’s wife tied her husband’s legacy to support for Hanabusa in fundraising pleas sent last month.

Richard Rapoza, communications director for Hanabusa’s campaign, said Inouye was well aware of all Hawaii lawmakers, including Schatz, before recommending Hanabusa. 

“Whether Brian Schatz can overcome Sen. Inouye’s assessment remains to be seen,” he told The Hill.

But Abercrombie maintains he had conversations with Inouye in which the late senator said Schatz, among others, would be perfectly acceptable for the appointment. 

“Sen. Inouye was a realist and he would understand perfectly what my responsibility was,” Abercrombie said, adding that he did not feel the argument would gain traction during the campaign. 

Internal polling from both camps has shown conflicting results  — either a dead heat or Schatz trailing by double digits — with large numbers of voters still undecided.

Schatz declined to talk about how the legacy argument will resonate during the election but said he will honor Inouye by governing in the style of his predecessor.

Along with climate change, Schatz named Native Hawaiian recognition, a cause championed by the late senator, as one of his highest priorities. 

“I revere Sen. Inouye, and we all continue to grieve for him,” he said. “My approach in terms of honoring his work and legacy is to work hard, be humble and keep the people of Hawaii in my heart.”