Brian Schatz is an appointed senator from Hawaii. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
The careers of Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz and Gov. Neil Abercrombie have been linked for several years, but the Schatz campaign has worked for the past 18 months to ensure their political fates are not.
With the Aloha State Democratic primaries just a week away, it’s increasingly possible Schatz, the former lieutenant governor appointed by Abercrombie in December 2012, could win the Senate nomination, even as the governor loses his own re-nomination.
Schatz faces Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the Aug. 9 contest, which both campaigns say is close.
Schatz hasn’t overtly run away from Abercrombie, whom he supports, but his campaign has focused squarely on the influence and accomplishments the freshman senator garnered in less than two years on Capitol Hill. The intent is to differentiate him from Hanabusa, with the added benefit of building a profile unique from his association with the unpopular governor.
That was clear in the final debate this month, when Schatz was asked directly about his website’s omission of any signs of Abercrombie. Schatz responded that voters will be choosing between he and Hanabusa, not any of the other prominent names looming over the race.
“There are other races going on, and they are important to lots of people across the state of Hawaii,” Schatz said. “But we both have to stand on our own. … I think the basic question in front of the people of the state of Hawaii is who has been more effective in the job?”
It was Abercrombie’s appointment of Schatz over Hanabusa — despite a deathbed letter from Sen. Daniel K. Inouye to choose the congresswoman — that kicked off the buzz over this coveted seat. Hanabusa pondered over the race for a few months before formally announcing her candidacy in May 2013. That subsequently opened up a House seat that’s invited nearly a dozen contenders.
Both Schatz and Hanabusa skipped votes this week to tour the state in a final get-out-the-vote push. Hanabusa said she’s toured the Neighbor Islands, which account for about 30 percent of the vote. And the campaigns’ final efforts include at least one unique method of mobilization: sign waving.
“It’s an interesting barometer of people,” Hanabusa said by phone this week, just after waving at morning commuters at a major thoroughfare near Honolulu. “It’s eye contact, and whether they wave, and those who flick their lights and toot their horns. … Some of the big truck drivers, they really have loud horns.”
Schatz and his allies have outspent Hanabusa and her allies on TV by an estimated 2-to-1 margin. That includes a couple months in the spring when Schatz ads went unanswered, and Schatz allies believe he is ahead going into the primary.
The League of Conservation Voters is running TV ads for the final two weeks of the race highlighting Schatz’s efforts on climate change issues. EMILY’s List has spent more than $500,000 in the past week on media buys and direct mail supporting Hanabusa. Their ads were not released to the press.
While pushing a contrast with Hanabusa in debates and interviews, Schatz has methodically released positive TV ads over the past several months targeting a different issue of focus. They included separate spots on Social Security, equal pay, gun safety, clean energy, student loans and one highlighting President Barack Obama’s endorsement.
“Senator Schatz’s principles are very straightforward,” Schatz spokeswoman Meaghan Smith said in an email. “Always put his work as Hawaii’s Senator first. Keep finding new ways to put Hawaii’s values to work in the U.S. Senate. And never take this campaign or the people of Hawaii for granted.”
One ad released a couple weeks ago highlighted Schatz’s intervention with United Airlines, which was considering outsourcing a couple hundred jobs.
“That helped to really drive the idea that he’s got these committee positions, he’s got these relationships he’s building, he’s passed some legislation. But look, he’s using his clout to actually save jobs out here,” said a source close to the Schatz campaign.
The congresswoman hit the airwaves by late May, including a radio ad highlighting former Sen. Daniel K. Akaka’s endorsement and a TV ad detailing what Hanabusa learned from Inouye — though it didn’t mention the letter.
Hanabusa said the impact of TV can be overblown in Hawaii, where the ground game is what counts in the campaign’s final days. While Schatz has argued he’s been more influential in less time in Congress, Hanabusa has told voters to look at the totality of their careers — which started in the state Legislature at the same time.
Hanabusa went on to become state Senate president, and was elected to the House in 2010. She calls herself a “minority within a minority” in that chamber.
“If you really want to see a person’s ability to be able to get things done and understand process,” Hanabusa said, “you really have to be in a situation where everything isn’t stacked in your favor.”
The winner will be heavily favored to emerge victorious in November and serve the final two years of Inouye’s term. The race is rated Safe Democratic by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.