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After storm, bitter Democratic primary in Hawaii heads toward finish

In a year marked by remarkable Democratic unity, Hawaii stands apart.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Democrat, from Hawaii's 1st district, talks to former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano, right, at her campaign headquarters, Aug. 9, 2014, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Democrat, from Hawaii's 1st district, talks to former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano, right, at her campaign headquarters, Aug. 9, 2014, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Hawaii has lately not been much of a paradise for Democrats, who are divided against each other in a Senate primary that still isn't decided almost a week after Election Day.

The race, between incumbent Sen. Brian Schatz and a sitting member of Congress, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, has split Democrats in Washington and Hawaii and involved deathbed wishes, a lawsuit, two hurricanes, racial divisions, and tests of ideological and Hawaiian loyalty, making for an unusually nasty intra-Democratic race in era more accustomed to GOP primaries.

After Saturday’s primary, Schatz was ahead by fewer than 1,700 votes. But on Friday, almost 7,000 more eligible voters in two hurricane-ravaged districts will have a chance to cast their ballots and possibly tip the race.

Hawaii hosts Democrats’ only contentious Senate primary this year, and the stakes were made clear Saturday when a shocking upset made Gov. Neil Abercrombie the first incumbent governor in Hawaii’s history to lose a primary. The result has led some Democrats to wonder if Hanabusa would have been better off challenging Abercrombie instead.

Abercrombie is deeply intertwined in the Senate race as well. The late Sen. Daniel Inouye, the state’s most powerful political figure, sent Abercrombie  a letter from his deathbed saying he wanted Hanabusa to take his place in Washington. Abercrombie, who later questioned the authority of the letter (and then had to apologize for disrespecting the late senator) went with Schatz instead.

That choice, and the circumstances behind it, set the stage for an unusually bitter primary fight that was almost entirely personal, with little policy differences separating the two Democrats.

On one side, Hanabusa had the remnants of Inouye’s old political machine, based in the large Japanese-American population on the island, and some national organizations like EMILY’s List,, the deep-pocketed group that supports pro-choice women.

Meanwhile Schatz drew support from a newer generation of progressives on the island and many friends in Washington. He clearly played in the Beltway game better, securing the endorsement of President Obama, a native of the state, and the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which supports incumbent Democrats.

Hanabusa supporters have dismissed the importance of the endorsements, noting that the election will be the first time voters have a chance to vote on Schatz. “This race has always been about the voters of Hawaii -- not the beltway -- and so that's why it matters that every single vote is counted,” said March Stech of EMILY’s List.

Democrats have lately gotten very good at avoiding these kinds of internecine fights. Unlike its Republican counterpart, DSCC often gets involved before primaries and helps to chose the best candidate for the party in the general election. With a weak Republican Party, however, the Democratic Primary is where all the action is in liberal Hawaii.

Some national players have sought to turn the race in a Democratic analog to the tea party contests on the right. “There is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party taking place between the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party and the corporate wing of the Party,” said Laura Friedenbach of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which endorsed Schatz and has run ads supporting him.

“The contrast is clear: Brian Schatz was one of the first U.S. Senators to support legislation to expand Social Security benefits, and his opponent Colleen Hanabusa voted for the Simpson-Bowles plan to cut Social Security benefits,” Friedenbach added.

Allies of Hanabusa scoff at the ideological posturing, saying there’s no daylight between the two on policy, the campaign’s spokesperson denounced the PCCC in an email to supporters as a “Mainland special interest” group “trying to appoint our leaders and change our Hawaii.”

It’s a theme the congresswoman’s campaign has used repeatedly in attacking Schatz’ campaign donors and Mainland “friends.”

In July, the race saw a rare heated debate over policy with Schatz accusing Hanabusa of making “deliberately false attacks” on his record on Iraq, and the Hanabusa campaign firing back by saying her opponent’s tactics were “an insult to Hawaii voters.”

It was an unusually heated exchange in a state known for its civil politics, and where campaigns sign off press releases with “Aloha.”

More recently, the race has been fought in court, after Hanabusa sued to postpone Friday’s vote, saying Hawaiians affected by the storms should focus on recovery, not voting. That promoted Schatz campaign manager Clay Schroers to issue a statement to reporters promising that Schatz is also focused on recover now and “beyond the election.”

On Thursday, a court rejected Hanabusa’s lawsuit, allowing the vote to continue on Friday.

But if the next round of voting is as close as the last, or if the courts get involved again, both sides acknowledge the outcome could be delayed again.