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Hanabusa Appointment Would Risk House Seat

In a solidly blue state, a crowded Democratic field is expected for special election; lack of primary could benefit Republicans

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Hawaii’s special elections law could make it risky for the governor to appoint Hanabusa to fill Inouye’s seat. The free-for-all special election format could boost GOP chances.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie must pick a successor to the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye from a list of three Democrats submitted by the state party.

His likely choices? Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa or Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

As his final wish, Inouye, who died Monday, asked the Democratic governor to appoint the first-term lawmaker to serve out his term. The 76-member Democratic state committee will curate a list of three suggested candidates by the end of the year, according to a state party official.

In a statement Tuesday, Hanabusa said the focus now should be on honoring Inouye and that succession will be determined in due time. But it’s hard to imagine a situation in which Hanabusa won’t make the cut. She’s viewed as next in line in a state that values and respects seniority. Ambitious politicians climb the political ladder by waiting their turn, and Hanabusa earned high marks for deferring to her current House colleague, Sen.-elect Mazie K. Hirono, in this cycle’s Senate race.

On Monday, Abercrombie declined to go into detail about the appointment. But the former congressman told local reporters that he believed Inouye’s “thoughts and words were lucid and available to us right up until the very last minute.” As the Democratic senator’s colleague for two decades, Abercrombie would take a big risk if he didn’t choose Inouye’s preferred successor.

But a Hanabusa appointment creates a precarious situation for Democrats: They have a good shot of losing the 1st District seat. In a situation that’s tripped up Democrats before, Hawaii law dictates a free-for-all special election for House seats.

“What makes it in play are the rules,” said Ed Espinoza, a Democratic consultant who has worked in Hawaii politics. “When you have a special election format with no primary and no runoff, there’s more risk for the party that has more candidates. And for Hawaii, that’s always going to be Democrats.”

In May 2010, there was a special election to fill Abercrombie’s seat after he resigned to run for governor full time. Then-Honolulu City Councilman Charles K. Djou, a Republican, won the race because Hanabusa and former Rep. Ed Case split the Democratic vote.

Today, there’s still no shortage of ambitious Democratic politicians in Hawaii who want to run for Congress. All but one member of the state Senate is a Democrat. If there’s an open House seat, Democrats expect several familiar names to consider running.

• Case is not a party favorite, but that hasn’t stopped him from running before. He enraged local party elders in 2006, when as a congressman he challenged Sen. Daniel K. Akaka in the Democratic primary. He lost that campaign, plus another primary for Senate in 2012.

• Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz unsuccessfully ran to succeed Case in the House in 2006, when Hirono won the seat. He might run again, or he could wait his turn to run for governor when Abercrombie calls it quits.

• Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann has run for Congress a few times over the past three decades. He lost to Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat, earlier this year.

There are more Democrats who would consider the race, but the party just needs two to spoil its chances of keeping Hanabusa’s seat.

Their most likely GOP contender is Djou, who served for several months until being defeated by Hanabusa in November 2010.

“It is my belief that if there is an open seat, [Djou] would consider it,” said a Republican consultant who has worked in Hawaii.

The former congressman did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Democrats need a kingmaker to ensure they keep the seat, someone who could use political muscle to remove lesser competitors from the race.

Ironically, Democrats said there was only one official with that kind of power in the state: Inouye.

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