In Hawaii, an Intraparty Fight for D.C. Insider Mantle

While many members fight to distance themselves from an unpopular Congress this cycle, thousands of miles away, two Democrats are battling to brag about who has tighter ties to Capitol Hill.

The competitive Democratic primary in Hawaii, the most isolated state in the country, is being waged over who can a carry on a legacy of securing crucial federal funding.

Appointed Sen. Brian Schatz faces a stout challenge from Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the special election for the remaining two years of the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s term. Since being seated in December 2012, Schatz has increased his name recognition across the state while also working to build a legislative résumé to take back home to voters ahead of the Aug. 9 primary — when the Senate race will be decided in all likelihood.

Just more than a year ago, Hawaii’s 76 combined years of senatorial seniority was wiped out by Inouye’s death and the coinciding retirement of Daniel K. Akaka. Now, Schatz is shining a spotlight on the relationships he’s fostered with Capitol Hill power brokers a little more than a year into his tenure, including a recent tour of Oahu’s military facilities with Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin.

“I know he found it fruitful, and everybody in Hawaii was thrilled that the lead appropriator on defense was able to visit Hawaii,” Schatz said in a Tuesday interview with CQ Roll Call. “He certainly understands how important the military presence is to the Hawaii economy, so it was a good trip all around.”

While Schatz benefits from many of the perks of incumbency, Hanabusa says she’s not approaching the race as the challenger. The 1st District representative was Inouye’s choice to succeed him, pitched in a deathbed letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who passed her over in favor of Schatz. Hanabusa now has the backing of Akaka, as well as a pair of former Democratic governors, among others.

“I’ve always said that this is an election that’s the first time the people of the state of Hawaii are going to have an opportunity to determine who should fill the remaining term of Sen. Inouye’s seat,” Hanabusa said by phone between events on Kauai, the state’s northern-most island. “That’s what this is about. I feel very good about the race.”

A trio of recent polls — in a state that’s notoriously difficult to survey — have offered three different results, with either Hanabusa leading, Schatz ahead or the race tied. Even the poll conducted by Schatz pollster Mark Mellman in early January found the senator ahead by just 4 points — though the campaign believes the numbers are steadily moving in Schatz’s direction.

The intraparty race has several dividing lines worth watching, including cultural and generational undertones often present in the state’s politics.

“There’s a whole lot of drama and narrative about the Caucasians versus the Japanese, but that’s the same that it’s always been here,” said Neal Milner, a University of Hawaii professor and observer of Aloha State politics for the past four decades. “It used to be much more obvious — locals versus outsiders — but that doesn’t work quite as well anymore.”

Milner said Hanabusa can and must win in her own right. While there is undoubtedly lingering bitterness about the Senate appointment among Hanabusa’s most ardent supporters, he has doubts about how much that spreads throughout the Democratic primary electorate. Not surprisingly, Schatz agrees.

“The two of us have to stand on our own two feet,” Schatz said. “And this is not a theoretical exercise — voters can look at both of our experiences in the Congress. Who’s the most effective in delivering for Hawaii and representing the values? And also in terms of building relationships with the key decision-makers in Washington, D.C.”

Schatz does have a significant financial advantage, with $2.4 million in cash on hand at of the end of 2013, compared to just under $900,000 for Hanabusa. That has the Schatz campaign confident it will have a more robust media presence than the competition.

Hanabusa conceded she will likely be outspent on TV but noted the airwaves could be jam-packed thanks to competitive primaries for her open 1st District and for governor — so TV may not be the most effective persuasion tactic.

“We’ll hold our own, but I really do believe Hawaii has been and always will be a field operation and ground game,” she said. “Each island is very different, and that’s why the ground game matters.”

Durbin’s visit, which included headlining a Schatz fundraiser, is a piece of the financial and strategic support the freshman senator is receiving from the party establishment in D.C., including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He’s won the backing of labor groups and liberal organizations such as the League of Conservation Voters, which aired TV ads on his behalf in November.

For all of the campaigns’ preparation over the past year, including fundraising, building campaign teams and securing core endorsements and supporters, the competition has only just begun. Both candidates opened campaign headquarters just in the past month, while the TV ads and significant canvassing of the various islands remain in the offing.

“They haven’t really started engaging in any public warfare yet,” one unaffiliated Hawaii Democrat said. “That will be the real test.”