Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) chose Hawaii Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz (D) to fill the seat left open by the death of longtime Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), deciding against Inouye's deathbed wish that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) succeed him.
The move comes as a surprise — most expected Abercrombie to honor Inouye's wish, delivered in a letter to the governor on the day of his death earlier this month. Abercrombie chose Schatz over Hanabusa and former congressional candidate Esther Kia'aina (D), the options presented to him by the state Democratic committee.
He said that Inouye's wishes had been "taken into account fully" but that "no one and nothing was preordained" and he wanted to make sure to act in the best interests of the state, especially in helping Hawaii's suddenly youthful congressional delegation build up seniority in Congress as quickly as possible.
Abercrombie's move could trigger some backlash within the party, possibly resulting in a primary challenge for either him or Schatz. Both will face the voters in 2014.
Abercrombie said Schatz is "intelligent, forceful, insightful, experienced and committed," but also heaped praise on Hanabusa, saying one of the reasons he didn't choose her was because of her highly prized seat on the House Armed Services Committee.
He also said that both she and Kia'aina had "offered their support for Brian" and said the state party was "united," downplaying concerns about a possible rift.
Schatz said he "certainly" planned to run in the special election to fill the remaining two years of the term in 2014, and again for a full term in 2016.
Schatz said he couldn't fill Inouye's shoes but hoped to walk "in his footsteps," and promised to focus on climate change and Native Hawaiian rights in Congress.
Schatz departed Hawaii on Wednesday night on Air Force One with President Obama, who is returning from vacation to resume efforts to reach a deficit deal to avoid January's "fiscal cliff." Schatz is expected to be sworn in Thursday afternoon.
He tweeted late Wednesday night that he had spoken to the president and was ready to begin work in Washington.
"Just had a nice, brief chat with the President on Air Force One. Looking forward to supporting his agenda in the Senate," Schatz wrote.
—This post was last updated on Dec. 27 at 7:20 a.m.