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Inouye's Legacy Looms Over Hawaii Senate Race

Inouye's Legacy Looms Over Hawaii Senate Race

By Scott Conroy - August 5, 2014

If U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz falls short in Saturday's Democratic primary in Hawaii, it will be despite the support he has lined up from a slew of boldface names who are backing his candidacy.

Prominent Washington Democrats ranging from Al Gore to Elizabeth Warren to Harry Reid have all gotten behind the incumbent in his race against U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

Most notably, Schatz earned the backing of the first commander-in-chief born in the Aloha State when President Obama endorsed him in March.

Still, it is another native son of Hawaii who truly looms over the special election, offering Hanabusa perhaps the biggest boost in her upset bid: the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who represented the 50th state in Washington for half a century.

Shortly before Inouye passed away in December 2012, he penned a letter to Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, urging him to appoint Hanabusa to his seat.

Abercrombie, however, selected Schatz -- who was his lieutenant governor at the time -- as the interim senator.

The governor’s unexpected decision has reverberated throughout this year’s primary contest, in which Schatz and Hanabusa are competing to serve out the remainder of Inouye’s term through 2016.

The seat is likely to remain in Democrats’ hands in November, but the unique circumstances surrounding the race have added intrigue.

In April, Abercrombie -- who is facing a tough primary challenge of his own -- implied in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that Inouye’s deathbed letter may not have been authentic. This was a politically ill-advised suggestion, for which he later apologized to the late senator’s wife.

Hanabusa supporters have expressed confidence that lingering resentment over the episode will hurt Schatz on Saturday, particularly among Hawaii’s powerful Japanese-American voting bloc (Hanabusa is Japanese-American, as was Inouye; Schatz is white).  

As fresh evidence to support this belief, Hanabusa’s camp cites a Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll released on Monday that showed her with an eight-point lead over the interim lawmaker.

“This election is really the first chance Hawaii voters have to choose who will represent them in the Senate, and it’s clear that the momentum among those voters is leaning in Colleen’s direction,” said Marcy Stech, the spokesperson for EMILY’s list, which has run a pro-Hanabusa ad targeting female voters. “The people of Hawaii know that she is a strong leader with the experience to be the voice they need in the Senate.”

Hawaii pollsters have a well-earned reputation for unreliability, and a separate automated poll released last week showed Schatz with an eight-point advantage.

With just four days to go, it is clear that the race is up for grabs.

Schatz has utilized his campaign’s financial edge over Hanabusa to flood the state’s airwaves with TV ads, including one 30-second spot that touts his efforts to keep United Airlines from moving jobs out of the state.

Additionally, Schatz has received air cover from the pro-environment League of Conservation Voters, which launched a $380,000 ad campaign during the primary’s final two weeks.

“When he wakes up every day and goes to work in the U.S. Senate, Brian Schatz is focused on how he can help Hawaii's hardworking middle-class families,” said Schatz spokesperson Meaghan Smith in a statement. “He's showed that he's effective in doing that, most recently when he helped to save 220 local United jobs from outsourcing. Senator Schatz has been delivering on Hawaii's values in the Senate -- from protecting Social Security to advancing clean energy.”

Substantive differences between the two candidates on policy have been difficult to discern.

Reflecting her status as the underdog in the contest, Hanabusa has been slightly more aggressive in attacking Schatz, while emphasizing her 12-year tenure in the Hawaii Senate as a key bullet point on her resume.

Schatz, on the other hand, began his campaign by seeking to define himself as the more progressive candidate but lately has sharpened his attacks a bit, as the issue of relevant experience has taken on a more prominent role.

In a debate last month, for instance, he characterized Hanabusa’s record since she entered Congress in 2011 as one that lacked distinction, noting that the only legislation she introduced that became law was a bill to rename a local post office.

But with few areas of substantive disagreement, Schatz’s best hope is that the power of incumbency will outweigh any bad feelings about the circumstances surrounding his appointment.
“It appears that Schatz’s money and the kind of national Democratic establishment endorsements he has are working to his advantage,” said Hawaii political analyst Neil Milner. “This is a race of small differences.”

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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