President Barack Obama took the rare step of endorsing in the Hawaii Democratic primary, adding to an already heated competition between Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and challenger Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. Obama’s endorsement would have considerable weight in most Democratic primaries, but it’s especially important in Hawaii since the president grew up there and remains popular. Obama’s endorsement will fan the flames of an already heated Democratic primary between two candidates who represent two distinct wings of the Democratic party in Hawaii. Here are four key points to keep in mind.
Polling has been volatile in Hawaii Democratic primary for the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s (D-HI) seat. As far back as July 2013, different polls of the primary painted vastly different pictures. At the time, a poll by EMILY’s List, which supports Hanabusa, found her leading Schatz by 11 percentage points but a survey by Schatz pollster Mark Mellman found the race tied at 37 percent each. Then a Honolulu Civil Beat poll found Schatz narrowly leading Hanabusa. But a few months ago, Honolulu Civil Beat found the race in a dead heat with Hanabusa and Schatz at 40 percent each. The remaining 20 percent said they were unsure who to vote for.
Some pretty heavy hitters have weighed in on Hawaii’s Democratic primary. First, one of Inouye’s last requests was for Hanabusa to succeed him. Hawaii’s governor, Neil Abercrombie (D), preferred Schatz, his lieutenant governor, and selected him to finish out the rest of Inouye’s term. Hanabusa has also won the support of Star Trek actor George Takei and the influential EMILY’s List. But many of the biggest names to pick a candidate in the race have been backers of Schatz.
Besides Obama, who Schatz supported early on when Obama ran for president in 2008, Schatz has been endorsed by MoveOn.org, Al Gore, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Howard Dean’s Democracy for America. Schatz also has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee because of its policy of backing incumbents.
The Republican National Committee was quick to point out after Obama endorsed Schatz that Hanabusa backed Hillary Clinton in 2008. “We haven’t heard if she’ll be backing Hanabusa, who endorsed her 2008 campaign,” RNC spokesman Jahan Wilcox wrote in an email.
In a profile of the race, The Washington Post reported that this Democratic primary isn’t about ideology (both Schatz and Hanabusa are left-of-center), it’s more a fight between the older “Japanese American political machine” versus the younger “whiter progressive wing” of the Democratic party in Hawaii. Hanabusa represents the Japanese-American contingent (as did Inouye) while Schatz is considered the candidate for that whiter, more progressive wing (Schatz is often labeled the more liberal candidate compared to Hanabusa and has been a champion on progressive issues like climate change).
The demographics of the state could also play a factor. Mark Mather, a demographer for the Population Reference Bureau, told NPR that the population of Japanese Americans in the state has been declining rapidly. By contrast, Hawaii’s white population has steadily remained about one fourth of the entire population.
A major characteristic of the 2014 election cycle has been the Republican-on-Republican primary fights, which have been especially heated in the Senate. But the Hawaii battle between Hanabusa and Schatz is a rare example of a tense skirmish between two Democrats vying for a high-profile seat. And it shows. In interviews with Honolulu Civil Beat about a week ago, Hanabusa and Schatz both reportedly struggled to say something nice about the other person.
When Schatz was asked what he liked about Hanabusa he stammered for a few minutes saying “I’m not sure, uh, uh” before finally settling on Hanabusa’s sense of humor and saying that she’s a “capable legislator.” Even then though Schatz was guarded, also saying “I’m not sure I’m prepared to give you her talking points.”
When it was Hanabusa’s turn, she focused on Schatz’s support of Obama over Clinton.
“I do credit him for that because I supported Hillary Clinton,” Hanabusa said. “The only thing I hope is that he doesn’t think Hillary Clinton is too old to run for president.”
(Associated Press photo image created by Brendan James)