Another race-tinted showdown in Hawaii

April 23, 2013

News broke late Monday that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) would challenge appointed Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) in a primary in 2014.

It should surprise no one.


From left, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Rep. Mazie Hirono,  Sen. Daniel Inouye, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie and candidate Tulsi Gabbard celebrate their election victories at the Japanese Cultural Center, Nov. 6, 2012 in Honolulu. (Marco Garcia/AP)

The Hawaii Democratic Party has a long history of primaries split along racial lines, with contests often coming down to an Asian-American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander candidate and a white one, referred to as "haole" in Hawaiian. And if it wasn't Hanabusa challenging Schatz, it was likely to be another Asian-American Democrat, because Asian candidates often win in a state that is just 26 percent white.

Over the last 20 years, there have been 10 major Democratic races that pitted a white candidate against an Asian-American one, including four out of six Honolulu mayor's races and three out of six governor's races.

At the Senate level, it hasn't happened as often since the state had two longtime Democratic senators who were ensconced in their seats. But even Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) faced a tough primary in 2006 with Rep. Ed Case, who is white, and Akaka's 2012 retirement paved the way for a matchup between Case and now-Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

The issue also cropped up in the 2010 special election for an open House seat. In that race, Case and Hanabusa split the Democratic vote enough to allow a Republican, Charles Djou, win the seat in a three-way race.

The nature of racial politics in the state means Hanabusa has a good chance of upending Schatz in a primary, according to Democrats with knowledge of the race.

"Very good," said one national Democrat, granted anonymity to discuss the race candidly.

Of the 10 races mentioned above, Asian-American candidates have won seven of them. Two haole men have been elected mayor of Honolulu, while Gov. Neil Abercrombie is the first white Democrat to hold that job since the 1970s. The state has elected several white members of Congress -- including Abercrombie and Case -- but its senators and governors have been almost exclusively Asian-American.

But Schatz will have some advantages of incumbency and his supporters argue that the race will be more about ideology than about race -- arguing that he's more in line with the progressive values of the Hawaii Democratic Party than is Hanabusa.

"In contested Democratic primaries, Caucasian candidates can win as long as their ideology lines up with the growing progressive base of the Democratic Party who vote in primaries," said a senior adviser to Schatz's campaign.

The former lieutenant governor has already begun raising big money -- $1.1 million in the first quarter, to Hanabusa's $230,000. He also has snagged key endorsements from the League of Conservation Voters and labor groups and will be supported by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

At the same time, it's unlikely the DSCC will spend money on this race, given the winner will have little bearing on whether the party can retain the seat in a deep blue state in 2014.

The real race here is the Democratic primary, and if history is any judge, it should be a real race.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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