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Although Schatz, 40, took only a third of the primary vote in his victorious 2010 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, he has plenty of political experience after serving as state party chairman for four years and chairing President Barack Obama’s campaign in Hawaii in 2008. Schatz also served eight years in the state House.
Still, without a strong state party to clear the field for the new senator, there is no telling how many other contenders could go for it. The real question is who could give Schatz a competitive primary should Hanabusa pass.
The source close to Hanabusa said she had also been approached to challenge Abercrombie, even before being passed over for the Senate appointment. Supporters cited Abercrombie’s inability to garner favor among voters after two years as governor.
In a Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll taken just before the November elections, Abercrombie’s approval rating dipped to 41 percent among likely voters. That included the support of just 51 percent who said they usually vote Democratic.
“It’s really a matter of where she sees her political future, which honestly won’t shake out for another six months or so,” the Hawaii Democratic source said.
Abercrombie clearly saw the potential for blowback that both he and Schatz could face by going against Inouye’s wishes when he announced the appointment the day after Christmas. Given three names by the state party’s central committee earlier in the day, Abercrombie chose Schatz over Hanabusa and Esther Kia’aina, a longtime congressional aide and unsuccessful candidate for the open 2nd District seat last year.
“It’s an opportunity to shape the future for the state of Hawaii,” Abercrombie said.
Abercrombie cited the need for a special election had he appointed Hanabusa — something that temporarily cost Democrats the same seat in 2010 when Abercrombie resigned from the House to run for governor. He also noted the loss of two years of seniority in the House, something he felt Hawaii could not afford with 71 years of Senate seniority dissolving with the death of Inouye and retirement this month of Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Akaka.
“This is the first time in Hawaii’s history, since it turned into a state, that we’ve had this level of transition at the federal level,” the Hawaii Democratic source said. “So the voters in Hawaii and the political realm in Hawaii really are going to have a hard time gauging what happens next.”