Hawaii's Dems move to draft shortlist for Inouye’s Senate seat

The Hawaiian Democratic Party is moving quickly to develop a shortlist of potential successors for Sen. Daniel Inouye’s (D-Hawaii) seat, following the senator’s sudden death Monday.

Hawaii Democratic Party Chairman Dante Carpenter said he had already been contacted by a number of Hawaii Democrats interested in the seat and that party officials had already begun the process of collecting applications in the state’s counties.

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“With all due respect to the senator passing only yesterday, we have begun the process,” he told The Hill on Tuesday.

Democrats must submit three possible Democratic appointees for the seat to Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), who will choose a replacement to serve until a special election is held in 2014.

“We don’t want to lose a minute of seniority,” Carpenter said.



One of Inouye’s final acts was to send a letter to Abercrombie urging him to appoint Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) as his successor, Inouye spokesman Peter Boylan confirmed to The Hill. 


A Democrat familiar with talks between Inouye and Hanabusa said the letter came as no surprise, as Inouye had indicated to Hawaiians, and Hanabusa herself, that he would like her to succeed him. The two lawmakers were close friends.

That likely makes Hanabusa the front-runner for the position, though Abercrombie wields ultimate power over the choice.

In a statement, Hanabusa said she was “honored” Inouye had mentioned her as his possible successor but wanted to “respect the process” set out in Hawaiian law. 

“Succession will be determined in due time,” Hanabusa said. “Right now, I believe that our focus should be on honoring Senator Inouye and his tremendous contributions to Hawaii and America.”

Carpenter said “the Democratic Party doesn’t have any favorites at this time” and that the state central committee would give equal consideration to every applicant, including the “custodian of the local high school.”

“Needless to say, we have some 50,000 members of the Democratic Party [in Hawaii], all of whom are more than likely eligible,” he said.

“We don’t go into this with preconceived notions,” Carpenter added.

The news of Inouye’s death broke shortly before a press conference that Abercrombie had scheduled to discuss the state’s budget. The senator’s passing pre-empted any fiscal discussion. Instead, an emotional Abercrombie praised Inouye’s service, saying “he left us with a legacy of honor and service to the people of Hawaii, to the people of this nation, without parallel.”

An Abercrombie aide said the governor plans to make the decision in time for the beginning of the next Congress, on Jan. 3, so Hawaii will not lack representation in the Senate for very long. 

The aide said that the governor had met with the chairman of the state Democratic Party on Monday to discuss the process going forward.

In addition to Hanabusa, other possible Democratic appointees include former Rep. Ed Case, who was defeated by Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono in the Democratic primary this year; Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, who lost a bid for Congress in 2006 and is still relatively unknown in the state; and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who has lost multiple congressional elections.

If Hanabusa is appointed to Inouye’s seat, that opens up a special election for Hawaii’s 1st congressional district, which could be a Republican pickup opportunity in the heavily blue state.

It is the only one of Hawaii’s two congressional districts that has been represented by a Republican: in the late 1980s by two-term Rep. Pat Saiki and again in 2010, when Charles Djou was elected in a special election. Djou subsequently lost in the November 2010 general election to Hanabusa. 

Djou is one of the few possible contenders Republicans have on a markedly shallow bench in Hawaii. He had less than $17,000 cash on hand at the end of November. But national Republicans could get involved in the race, because the GOP will have few other contests on which to focus its resources when the late-spring special election occurs.

Also potentially working in a Republican’s favor in the district is the fact that Hawaii’s special elections are winner-take-all. That means if multiple Democrats run and split the Democratic vote, a Republican could ride to victory with just a plurality, rather than a majority.

That’s what happened in 2010, when Abercrombie resigned to run for governor. Five Democrats, four other Republicans and four independent candidates ran for his seat. Djou won with 39 percent of the vote.

Any of the Democrats floated to replace Inouye could run in the 1st district, and at least one, Case, has indicated he would be interested in running in a special election, according to a person familiar with Case’s thinking.