Primary incomplete but odds are long for Senate challenger in Hawaii

Sen. Brian Schatz at his headquarters in Honolulu on Saturday night. He holds a narrow lead over Democratic challenger Colleen Hanabusa after an emotionally fraught primary campaign.
Sen. Brian Schatz at his headquarters in Honolulu on Saturday night. He holds a narrow lead over Democratic challenger Colleen Hanabusa after an emotionally fraught primary campaign.
(Krystle Marcellus / Associated Press)
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Hawaii’s Democratic primary election may stretch for weeks because of storm-related voting delays, but the challenger in an acrimonious and achingly close U.S. Senate race faces an uphill struggle to win.

With more than 200 precincts reporting, appointed Sen. Brian Schatz held a 1,635-vote lead over Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, out of 230,000 votes cast. But that did not include full tallies from two Big Island precincts where voting was canceled Saturday because of the effects of Tropical Storm Iselle.

Although no one was calling the race for Schatz, the math is not on Hanabusa’s side.

The two precincts include just more than 8,000 voters. Some of them may have cast early ballots — absentee balloting in Hawaii overall was up strikingly after officials encouraged it to avoid traveling to polling places between Iselle’s landfall and Sunday’s northern approach of Hurricane Julio.


Some of them may not intend to vote. Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout in the nation, at less than 45%, in the 2012 presidential election, one which featured a native son in President Obama and which typically draws a better response than state contests.

Out of the remaining votes in the two precincts, Hanabusa would have to wrest a huge advantage on an island where Schatz was winning narrowly overall. (He was losing in Kauai and Maui but winning in populous Honolulu.) Hanabusa strategists were privately pessimistic.

Voting in the Puna area was shut down after Iselle knocked down trees and caused power outages. “There are miles of roads that are obstructed,” Atty. Gen. David Louie told reporters Friday.

The state’s election officer, Scott Nago, told Hawaii News Now that after the primary concluded, those in the precincts who had not already voted would be sent ballots, which would have to be returned within three weeks.

An official with one of the Senate campaigns said Sunday that the start date for that three-week period was not clear.

The wild finish was a fitting end to a race enveloped in controversy from the start.

Schatz was appointed as senator after the December 2012 death of the revered Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who in a deathbed missive had alerted Gov. Neil Abercrombie of his wish that Hanabusa be given the seat.


Abercrombie went instead with his lieutenant governor, Schatz, arguing that his youth — he is more than 20 years younger than Hanabusa — would offer Hawaii a senator who could build seniority over the long term.

But the appointment — and Abercrombie’s later insinuation in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that the deathbed letter had been manufactured by someone other than Inouye himself— exploded Hawaii’s already restive political divisions, between Caucasian and Asian American voters, young and old, and liberal and moderate.

The appointment was a factor in Abercrombie’s stunning 35-percentage-point loss Saturday to state Sen. David Ige. But Schatz was able to distance himself enough to secure a narrow but persistent lead.

Over time, said one strategist who has recently conducted polling in Hawaii, Schatz carved out an identity separate from Abercrombie’s. The evidence was in vote tallies that had the senator carrying 40,000 more Democratic votes than the governor.

“He’s been in office a year — and then to them he’s a senator, he’s not running as Neil Abercrombie’s lieutenant governor,” said California-based pollster Ben Tulchin. Abercrombie’s collapse probably cost Schatz some support, but overall voters felt “there was no reason to fire him,” he said.

The Democratic winner will face Republican Cam Cavasso in November for the right to serve out the final two years of Inouye’s term. In Democratic Hawaii, a victory in the primary that began Saturday, and will end at some point, should be enough.


“In the Senate race, it was all about the primary,” Tulchin said.

For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker