Hurricanes roil historic Hawaii primary and could boost challengers


Sen. Brian Schatz and challenger Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa are seen moments before their debate at Hawaii News Now on Thursday July 17, 2014. (AP Photo/The Star-Advertiser, Cindy Ellen Russell)

Hawaii is two days away from its biggest Democratic primary election in a generation. It also happens to be bracing for a pair of hurricanes, the first of which is set to make landfall in a matter of hours.

The storms are 11th hour wild cards in what's been an historic primary season in the Aloha State. Competitive races for both the U.S. Senate and governor will determine the future of the Democratic Party in Hawaii, which has long been divided along generational, ethnic and political lines.

One on side, a mostly younger, more liberal, whiter wing of the party represented by Sen. Brian Schatz and Gov. Neil Abercrombie. On the other, a more centrist, older, more Asian American faction embodied by Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and state Sen. David Ige.

Polling -- which is notoriously difficult in Hawaii -- shows both contests are competitive. The soon-to-arrive storms are expected to lower turnout, which one observer says could work against the two incumbents.

"I think it helps Hanabusa," said University of Hawaii political scientist Colin Moore. The congresswoman's base is the old guard Japanese American political establishment, which is very loyal, Moore noted. They are expected to turn out in substantial numbers even in bad weather.

Hurricane Iselle is approaching the Big Island, triggering the first hurricane warning there in more than two decades. According to the National Weather Service, the center of Iselle is expected to pass over the Big Island later Thursday.

As if that weren't enough for the state to deal with, there's Hurricane Julio. That storm may miss Hawaii to the north over the weekend, but could still bring inclement weather to the islands that may discourage people from leaving their homes to vote.

With the storm approaching, the campaigns have instructed supporters to take down signs and banners. Early voting ends Thursday, and both state parties have encouraged voters to take advantage of the option with the storms headed to the area.

The Saturday election has not been postponed. Any delay would ultimately be up to the Abercrombie administration. Moore said Abercrombie is in a tough spot: No matter what he does, it will look political -- which could hurt him in the vote.

"I am sure Abercrombie will make that call pretty late," said Moore, adding that "people will accuse him" of working it to his advantage no matter what.

Hanabusa is competing with Schatz for the final two years of late Sen. Daniel Inouye's seat. A Hawaii political icon, Inouye wanted Hanabusa, a close ally, to replace him. But Abercrombie tapped Schatz, who was then his lieutenant governor.

The move was seen by Inouye's inner circle as an affront to his legacy, spurring Hanabusa to enter the primary contest.

Schatz has been running on the strength of his legislative record, his liberal bona fides and and the relationships he's formed with influential power brokers in Washington. He's backed by Senate Democratic leaders and President Obama, whose seal of approval is very valuable in the liberal state where he grew up.

But Hanabusa's campaign has run ads tethering Schatz to Abercrombie, who spearheaded an unpopular pension tax hike that hurt his image.

The winners of the Democratic primaries will begin the general election as frontrunners, given the state's strong leftward tilt.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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