The Weird Power and Liability of Incumbency in Hawaii

The state's voters used to revere longtime officeholders. On Saturday, that changed, when the state's governor, Neil Abercrombie, lost in an unprecedented upset—but the man he controversially handpicked as U.S. senator may win.
Hugh Gentry/Reuters

It is because of Neil Abercrombie—the Hawaii governor ousted in a Democratic primary on Saturday—that Brian Schatz became the state's seventh United States senator in the first place.

That Abercrombie was unseated was unusual enough, the first time in history a Hawaii governor has failed to win renomination by his party. But now things get even stranger: With the contest between Schatz and his primary challenger, Representative Colleen Hanabusa, still too close to call, the senator's fate rests with 8,000 or so registered voters who have yet to cast ballots thanks to a tropical storm that closed polling places. 

The backstory is dramatic. Nearly two years ago, in the doldrums between Christmas and New Year's Eve 2012, Abercrombie picked Schatz, then his lieutenant governor, to replace a man who could never be replaced. 

Senator Daniel Inouye had represented Hawaii in Washington for the entirety of the state's existence, including nearly 50 years in the Senate, until he died in December 2012. And while Inouye made clear—in a dramatic deathbed letter—his desire for Hanabusa to be his successor, Abercrombie shocked the political establishment and appointed Schatz instead. With that, the governor installed a close ally in Washington, where he'd been a congressman himself for nearly 20 years. (His real motivation, Abercrombie said, was to pick the person he believed would be best for the job.) 

The selection stunned a community accustomed to seeing Inouye get what he wanted. Symbolically, Inouye the kingmaker—a man who a poll once found to be literally more popular than God—had truly fallen. But life went on. Hawaii adapted to a reality without Inouye, in part because the same congressional dysfunction that had plagued him in the twilight of his career prevented Schatz from accomplishing anything of real substance either. Hawaii's representation in Congress may have dramatically changed, but life in the Islands didn't feel all that different. 

Then, on Saturday, the story took a strange turn. 

Voters might have been expected to overrule Abercrombie by ousting Schatz. Instead, it was Abercrombie who was overwhelmingly defeated by a little-known state senator, David Ige. Meanwhile, Schatz may still hang onto his Senate seat. As of early Sunday morning, he was leading Hanabusa by 1,788 votes, but the election could not be called because two precincts on Hawaii's Big Island were closed on Election Day due to back-to-back storms. Voters in those precincts can still mail in their ballots.

All this chaos raises the question: Which voters are deciding Hawaii's future? And which constituency would have turned out against Abercrombie but for Schatz?

Incumbency undoubtedly helped Schatz—he pulled in the mainland donations and high-profile endorsements that are all but automatic for a sitting senator—whereas incumbency may have hurt the man who put Schatz in the Senate. Abercrombie's record as governor does little to illuminate his staggering defeat. Hawaii is economically on the upswing and unemployment is, as usual for the state, much lower than the national average. 

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Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBUR. More

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications.

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