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Bad Blood May Mean Primaries for Hawaii Democrats

Hawaii’s governor, newly appointed senator are vulnerable

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s decision last month to appoint Brian Schatz to the Senate could unfurl divisive Democratic primaries for the seats of both men in 2014, including from within the congressional delegation.

How vulnerable either official is remains to be seen, but in a state where there is no lack of Democratic political ambition, the appointment to fill the seat of the state’s longest-serving senator is unlikely to be the last word on it.

“There is buzz that folks are going to get primaried, there’s no question about that,” a Hawaii Democratic source said. “But as of now, it’s just a rumor.”

Regardless of what happens in 2014, it’s clear Hawaii is in the midst of a generational shift in its politics.

Abercrombie opted against following the deathbed wishes of the late Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who requested in a letter to the Democratic governor that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa replace him. Some Hawaii Democrats viewed Schatz’s appointment as Abercrombie ignoring the state’s iconic senator, who served in the chamber for 50 years, nearly as long as Hawaii has been a state. The perceived slight could inspire a legitimate challenge to either Abercrombie or Schatz — or both.

A source close to Hanabusa said the second-term Democrat has been encouraged to challenge Schatz in the special election next year. The source called it an attractive race for any qualified candidate but said that most will likely await Hanabusa’s decision, which could come within six months.

Other potential candidates might hold off on announcing a Senate bid in part because it’s unlikely anyone else could wage as strong a challenge as Hanabusa, who has won two federal races, served 12 years in the state Senate and was the first woman to lead either chamber of the state Legislature. Plus, Hanabusa’s Senate bid would in turn open one of the state’s two House seats, providing another tempting avenue and a clearer path to Capitol Hill for ambitious Hawaii Democrats.

About a dozen candidates applied for the appointment to Inouye’s seat, including Hanabusa, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Rep. Ed Case. There remains plenty of interest in Democratic circles, sources said, but it’s unclear how many candidates could build the kind of political operation it would take to defeat Schatz. Case did not return an email, and a Gabbard spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment by press time.

Although Schatz, 40, took only a third of the primary vote in his victorious 2010 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, he has plenty of political experience after serving as state party chairman for four years and chairing President Barack Obama’s campaign in Hawaii in 2008. Schatz also served eight years in the state House.

Still, without a strong state party to clear the field for the new senator, there is no telling how many other contenders could go for it. The real question is who could give Schatz a competitive primary should Hanabusa pass.

The source close to Hanabusa said she had also been approached to challenge Abercrombie, even before being passed over for the Senate appointment. Supporters cited Abercrombie’s inability to garner favor among voters after two years as governor.

In a Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll taken just before the November elections, Abercrombie’s approval rating dipped to 41 percent among likely voters. That included the support of just 51 percent who said they usually vote Democratic.

“It’s really a matter of where she sees her political future, which honestly won’t shake out for another six months or so,” the Hawaii Democratic source said.

Abercrombie clearly saw the potential for blowback that both he and Schatz could face by going against Inouye’s wishes when he announced the appointment the day after Christmas. Given three names by the state party’s central committee earlier in the day, Abercrombie chose Schatz over Hanabusa and Esther Kia’aina, a longtime congressional aide and unsuccessful candidate for the open 2nd District seat last year.

“It’s an opportunity to shape the future for the state of Hawaii,” Abercrombie said.

Abercrombie cited the need for a special election had he appointed Hanabusa — something that temporarily cost Democrats the same seat in 2010 when Abercrombie resigned from the House to run for governor. He also noted the loss of two years of seniority in the House, something he felt Hawaii could not afford with 71 years of Senate seniority dissolving with the death of Inouye and retirement this month of Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Akaka.

“This is the first time in Hawaii’s history, since it turned into a state, that we’ve had this level of transition at the federal level,” the Hawaii Democratic source said. “So the voters in Hawaii and the political realm in Hawaii really are going to have a hard time gauging what happens next.”

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