Hawaii's Primary: The Last Chance for an Incumbent Senator to Lose

Legacy, ethnicity, and seniority are all at stake in Hawaii's primary Saturday, which could see a sitting senator lose.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 14: Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks during a news conference in the Capitol to announce the newly formed Senate Climate Change Task Force. (National Journal)

After victories this week in Kansas and Tennessee, Republican senators successfully made it through the 2014 primary season without losing to a single tea-party-backed challenger. But in the lone competitive Democratic Senate primary of the cycle, one incumbent finds himself in very real danger of losing his seat.

Far from the mainland, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii is locked in a nail-biter with Rep. Colleen Hanabusa heading into a Saturday primary. But Hanabusa doesn't see the race through the traditional incumbent-challenger lens.

"This is an election that's important because this is the first time that the people have a choice," Hanabusa said in an interview. "Because up until now, he had a vote of one, and that was Neil Abercrombie."

As the late Sen. Daniel Inouye's health deteriorated toward the end of 2012, the giant of Hawaii politics sent a letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a fellow Democrat, asking him to appoint Hanabusa to fill his seat in the upper chamber upon his death. Abercrombie, however, spurned Inouye's request and instead sent Schatz, his younger lieutenant governor, to Washington.

The controversy helped to shape the Senate race at the outset, and while there's much more to the campaign than Abercrombie's decision, it still looms over the race.

"Politicians can sometimes make campaigns about themselves, but Senator Schatz has always focused relentlessly on what he can do to help hardworking families in Hawaii and the issues that affect them," Schatz campaign spokeswoman Meaghan Smith said.

In the reliably Democratic state, the 41-year-old Schatz has attempted to cast himself as the more progressive candidate and the voice of a new generation. One of the reasons Abercrombie cited for passing over Hanabusa was Schatz's relative youth, which gave him an opportunity to build up more seniority in the Senate. Inouye and former Sen. Daniel Akaka had more than 70 combined years of seniority at the end of 2012; Hawaii has less than four now between Schatz and Sen. Mazie Hirono.

"His campaign has appealed to people who are looking to see this transition in Hawaii take place in terms of our political leadership," said Randy Perreira, the executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which endorsed Schatz. "For many years, we had the good benefit of having a very strong presence in Washington, D.C., with Senator Dan Inouye. But we only had the senator on this earth for a fixed period of time and now that he is gone, we're now looking at the next generation."

Hanabusa, on the other hand, has leaned heavily on the experience she gained not only in Congress but in 12 years in the Hawaii state Senate.

"Brian Schatz and I began our legislative political careers at exactly the same time. So what people can do is measure us by what we have done in the same period of time." Hanabusa said. Then, she added, voters can ask themselves, "Who do you think can best represent you and who do you trust to be there to carry out Hawaii's values and maintain the uniqueness that is Hawaii?"

The race has been neck-and-neck ever since Hanabusa officially entered in May 2013. Polling is often sparse and unreliable in Hawaii, and two public surveys conducted in late July were complete opposites: A live-caller poll conducted for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now found Schatz down 8 percentage points to Hanabusa, while an automated poll commissioned by the Honolulu Civil Beat showed Schatz leading by eight. At the very least, they underline that Schatz doesn't enjoy the usual overwhelming advantages of incumbency.

The state's ethnic makeup will play an important role in shaping the contest's outcome. The Hanabusa campaign is banking on the Japanese-American community to come out in full force for her. Asians make up just under 40 percent of the population in Hawaii, while whites, who are going to vote more strongly for Schatz, comprise roughly a quarter of the population.

While Hanabusa inherited much of Inouye's political network, Schatz has enjoyed the support of several national figures. A number of his Senate colleagues, including Harry Reid and Elizabeth Warren, have endorsed him, as has the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the League of Conservation Voters, and former Vice President Al Gore. Schatz is also backed by a few powerful local labor unions, while EMILY's List is behind Hanabusa.

"I don't think our local population overall is that to the left," said Inouye's former chief of staff, Jennifer Sabas, who is backing Hanabusa. "I think it's a little more balanced and clearly more nuanced."

President Obama even made a rare intervention into the race, endorsing Schatz — who headed Obama's Hawaii campaign during the 2008 primaries — in late March, which the senator has emphasized in a several television ads.

The race has also attracted more than $1.3 million in outside spending, but in a departure from other contentious intraparty battles around the country this year, it's all been positive. The lion's share of that total has come from the League of Conservation Voters and EMILY's List, both of which have aired TV ads touting their preferred candidates.

But Hanabusa still questioned why LCV, which endorsed Schatz before she officially declared her candidacy, decided to spend a half-million dollars on the race when she compiled a 95 percent lifetime rating with the environmental group. (Schatz has a perfect 100 percent score.)

"So why would an organization spend that kind of money in Hawaii against someone who has — you know, it's like having the difference between an A and what they may perceive to be as an A-plus. That just doesn't make any sense," Hanabusa said.

LCV spokesman Jeff Gohringer said "the endorsement was solely about Brian Schatz's leadership on climate change."

In a last-minute twist to the contest, the weather may play a disruptive role. Hurricane Iselle hit Hawaii on Thursday, and Hurricane Julio is approaching as well, although it isn't likely to pass through until Sunday. Both campaigns this week were pushing supporters to cast their ballots early.