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Hawaii Senate Race Stokes Obama, Clinton Rift

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
It was Inouye’s dying wish that the governor appoint Hanabusa to fill the remainder of his Senate term.

The lingering fallout from the 2008 presidential primaries could rear its head in another congressional contest — this time in Hawaii.

The two Democrats who will face off in next year’s Senate primary took leading roles on opposite sides of the primary that pitted Barack Obama versus Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In the Aloha State — where politics is especially personal — every possible division between appointed Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa will likely spill out in the 2014 special election. Schatz’s team plans to use this to its advantage — including parlaying his role in helping nominate the president in his home state.

“All of those Democratic Party members we signed up we can actually ID by name, communicate with them and tout the connections we have with the president,” a source close to Schatz said.

Like many other states in 2008, the local party in Hawaii was split into two camps. Schatz, then a former state representative, was the political director and top spokesman for the Obama campaign. Meanwhile, Hanabusa, who was then the state Senate president, served as Clinton’s state spokeswoman.

Now the two rivals will face off in a race of their own at a time of unprecedented turnover in the state delegation. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s death in December coincided with the retirement of Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, putting Hawaii near the bottom of the seniority totem pole for the first time in several decades.

The race will likely become official during next week’s congressional recess, when Hanabusa is expected to formally announce her candidacy for the special Senate election to fill the remaining two years of Inouye’s term.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who backed Obama in the 2008 primary, appointed Schatz to Inouye’s seat on Dec. 26. Just before Inouye died, the longtime senator, who backed Clinton, asked the governor to appoint Hanabusa.

Schatz, in preparation for a likely challenge, moved quickly following his appointment. That night, Schatz flew from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., with the president aboard Air Force One after his annual vacation there.

Schatz hired a full consulting team and, after many evenings dialing for dollars at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, raised $1.1 million in the first quarter.

As the incumbent, the DSCC is supporting Schatz. But it’s difficult to see the committee making any independent expenditures in a primary where either contender is highly likely to win the general election. That’s especially unlikely this cycle, when the party faces a challenging map filled with vulnerable incumbents.

But other special interest groups are already beginning to take sides. The League of Conservation Voters backed Schatz, and EMILY’s List, which has supported Hanabusa in the past, telegraphed on Tuesday that it will continue to back her.

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