Especially this year. Indeed, ethnicity has cast a shadow over the Senate primary from its inception, when longtime Sen. Daniel Inouye, on his deathbed, asked that fellow Japanese-American Hanabusa be appointed to succeed him. Instead, the white governor, Neil Abercrombie, chose Schatz, his lieutenant governor.
That decision has become a central theme of Hanabusa's campaign as she argues that Hawaii's Asian-American voters deserve a choice in who represents them in the Senate and that much of Inouye's network — particularly in the Japanese-American community, known locally as the AJA community — is behind her in that quest.
"The whole basis of the Hanabusa campaign is, 'Inouye picked me,' " said one Democratic strategist. "This is also about one AJA picking another versus a haole governor picking a haole senator."
Jennifer Sabas, Inouye's former chief of staff who now supports Hanabusa's candidacy, said many Japanese-Americans took Abercrombie's decision as an "incredible insult."
These under-the-surface tensions are nothing new. The history of ethnic political divisions in Hawaii goes back to what's known as the Democratic Revolution of 1954, when Asian-American voters teamed up to take on the political power of Hawaii's white plantation owners. Young Japanese-American soldiers — including Inouye — returned home to Hawaii after World War II, went to college, and began running for office, culminating in the 1954 elections where Asian-American Democrats ousted many white Republican politicians.
As a result, all the Asian-American ethnic groups became closely associated with the Democratic Party — a trend that's still generally true today, and contributes to the Republican Party's difficulty in taking hold in Hawaiian politics.
Asians are by far the biggest ethnic group in Hawaii, at just under 40 percent in the 2010 census. White voters are about 23 percent of the population.
But dealing with ethnic groups is particularly complicated here because there's no monolithic "Asian-American vote" in Hawaii: there are AJAs or Japanese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Samoan-Americans, native Hawaiians — the list goes on. All these groups have their own interests, key issues, and even stereotypes their candidates must still overcome.
Further complicating the picture, more and more people, particularly young people, are identifying themselves as mixed-race: Just under a quarter of all Hawaiians did so in 2010.
That dynamic is playing out in the Democratic primary, where Schatz is gaining support from the state's younger, more progressive Democrats and Hanabusa still does well among older and more working-class voters.
"At one time, you could almost count the number of votes you would get from the Japanese-American community, the Korean-American community, the Chinese-Americans and the [native] Hawaiians," said Pat Saiki, the current state Republican chairwoman who served two terms in the U.S. House in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "You could divide it up according to population and guess who would be ahead, but today our young people have become mixed and married to the point where "¦ political leanings are not necessarily determined by your ethnicity but your attitudes."