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Bad Blood May Mean Primaries for Hawaii Democrats

Hawaii’s governor, newly appointed senator are vulnerable

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Some Hawaii Democrats were displeased that Schatz was chosen to fill Inouye’s seat. The late senator wanted Hanabusa to take his place.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s decision last month to appoint Brian Schatz to the Senate could unfurl divisive Democratic primaries for the seats of both men in 2014, including from within the congressional delegation.

How vulnerable either official is remains to be seen, but in a state where there is no lack of Democratic political ambition, the appointment to fill the seat of the state’s longest-serving senator is unlikely to be the last word on it.

“There is buzz that folks are going to get primaried, there’s no question about that,” a Hawaii Democratic source said. “But as of now, it’s just a rumor.”

Regardless of what happens in 2014, it’s clear Hawaii is in the midst of a generational shift in its politics.

Abercrombie opted against following the deathbed wishes of the late Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who requested in a letter to the Democratic governor that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa replace him. Some Hawaii Democrats viewed Schatz’s appointment as Abercrombie ignoring the state’s iconic senator, who served in the chamber for 50 years, nearly as long as Hawaii has been a state. The perceived slight could inspire a legitimate challenge to either Abercrombie or Schatz — or both.

A source close to Hanabusa said the second-term Democrat has been encouraged to challenge Schatz in the special election next year. The source called it an attractive race for any qualified candidate but said that most will likely await Hanabusa’s decision, which could come within six months.

Other potential candidates might hold off on announcing a Senate bid in part because it’s unlikely anyone else could wage as strong a challenge as Hanabusa, who has won two federal races, served 12 years in the state Senate and was the first woman to lead either chamber of the state Legislature. Plus, Hanabusa’s Senate bid would in turn open one of the state’s two House seats, providing another tempting avenue and a clearer path to Capitol Hill for ambitious Hawaii Democrats.

About a dozen candidates applied for the appointment to Inouye’s seat, including Hanabusa, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Rep. Ed Case. There remains plenty of interest in Democratic circles, sources said, but it’s unclear how many candidates could build the kind of political operation it would take to defeat Schatz. Case did not return an email, and a Gabbard spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment by press time.

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