Hawaii Senate Race Stokes Obama, Clinton Rift

Posted April 24, 2013 at 5:33pm

The lingering fallout from the 2008 presidential primaries could rear its head in another congressional contest — this time in Hawaii.

The two Democrats who will face off in next year’s Senate primary took leading roles on opposite sides of the primary that pitted Barack Obama versus Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In the Aloha State — where politics is especially personal — every possible division between appointed Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa will likely spill out in the 2014 special election. Schatz’s team plans to use this to its advantage — including parlaying his role in helping nominate the president in his home state.

“All of those Democratic Party members we signed up we can actually ID by name, communicate with them and tout the connections we have with the president,” a source close to Schatz said.

Like many other states in 2008, the local party in Hawaii was split into two camps. Schatz, then a former state representative, was the political director and top spokesman for the Obama campaign. Meanwhile, Hanabusa, who was then the state Senate president, served as Clinton’s state spokeswoman.

Now the two rivals will face off in a race of their own at a time of unprecedented turnover in the state delegation. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s death in December coincided with the retirement of Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, putting Hawaii near the bottom of the seniority totem pole for the first time in several decades.

The race will likely become official during next week’s congressional recess, when Hanabusa is expected to formally announce her candidacy for the special Senate election to fill the remaining two years of Inouye’s term.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who backed Obama in the 2008 primary, appointed Schatz to Inouye’s seat on Dec. 26. Just before Inouye died, the longtime senator, who backed Clinton, asked the governor to appoint Hanabusa.

Schatz, in preparation for a likely challenge, moved quickly following his appointment. That night, Schatz flew from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., with the president aboard Air Force One after his annual vacation there.

Schatz hired a full consulting team and, after many evenings dialing for dollars at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, raised $1.1 million in the first quarter.

As the incumbent, the DSCC is supporting Schatz. But it’s difficult to see the committee making any independent expenditures in a primary where either contender is highly likely to win the general election. That’s especially unlikely this cycle, when the party faces a challenging map filled with vulnerable incumbents.

But other special interest groups are already beginning to take sides. The League of Conservation Voters backed Schatz, and EMILY’s List, which has supported Hanabusa in the past, telegraphed on Tuesday that it will continue to back her.

To overcome Hanabusa’s name identification and her political base that is closely tied to Inouye, Schatz is banking on reigniting for his own benefit the Obama Ohana (family), as the president’s grass-roots army was known there.

Schatz held his first organizational campaign meeting on a Saturday in late March. According to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser report, more than 500 people showed up. A source close to Schatz said many of them were the same volunteers who helped spur Obama past Clinton in the state in 2008.

Hanabusa started considering a run to fill the remaining two years of Inouye’s term almost as soon as she was passed over for the appointment. A poll conducted on her behalf in late February found she took 51 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, and Schatz had 32 percent.

While Hanabusa could count on the support of the traditional Democratic base that supported and elected Inouye for so many years, the Schatz campaign will no doubt play up the senator’s ties to Obama and utilize all the organizational work put into the 2008 caucuses.

Despite Hawaii being Obama’s birthplace, the 2008 race for the state’s delegates was contested. Clinton’s supporters were boosted by her victory in the New Hampshire primary, and Chelsea Clinton made an appearance in Honolulu shortly before the mid-February caucuses.

Meanwhile, the local Obama team worked with the national campaign to surge the participation in what had traditionally been an insider caucus system.

More than 37,000 people showed up to caucus in the 51 state House districts on Feb. 19, 2008 — about 30,000 above average turnout. Obama swept each district, though there were enough super delegates in the state to keep the eventual winner unknown for several more months.

“The message that you just can’t beat in Hawai’i is the ‘local boy,’” Hanabusa was quoted saying then in the Honolulu Advertiser.

After another round of organizing to stack the state convention, Schatz was elected state party chairman, which meant a trip to Denver for the national convention as a super delegate. Hanabusa would go to Denver as a Clinton delegate.

But before Denver, as the party looked to come together, Schatz and Hanabusa were forced to organize and participate in unity events in the state — just as Obama and Clinton appeared together in Unity, N.H., in late June that year.

“We are good Democrats, and we will be able to rally together,” the Honolulu Star-Bulletin quoted Schatz saying then.

This won’t be the first time Schatz and Hanabusa face each other in a bid for Congress. In the 2006 race for the open 2nd District, Hanabusa finished a close second in a 10- candidate field to now-Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, while Schatz ended up closer to the bottom of the pack.