Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) was appointed to the U.S. Senate in December 2012. The man who sent him to Washington, Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), has suddenly become a complication in Schatz's bid to keep his seat in this year's election.
In at least a pair of high-profile media interviews in recent months, Abercrombie stoked the tensions surrounding his controversial decision to appoint Schatz. The result has been a renewed focus on Abercrombie's choice to tap his lieutenant governor for the job that late-senator Daniel Inouye (D) wanted to go to his protege, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii).
Schatz has built his bid to win his 2014 election on the liberal record he's crafted during his brief tenure in Washington. Support from native son President Obama and other national Democratic leaders have helped him make his case. Schatz has been keen to talk about what he's accomplished and why he can govern in the tradition of Inouye, who is beloved in Hawaii.
But in casting a fresh spotlight on how Schatz was sent to the Senate, Abercrombie has threatened overshadow his record there. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, the governor questioned whether Inouye actually dispatched a letter to the governor just before his death requesting that Hanabusa succeed him in the upper chamber.
"I received that letter, ostensibly coming from Sen. Inouye himself, a half an hour before he died in Washington, D.C. Literally," Abercrombie told the Times. "Whether or not this could be construed as Sen. Inouye’s dying wish — let me put it this way — is problematic."
The campaign of Hanabusa, who is running against Schatz in the Democratic primary, insisted that Inouye dictated the note. Abercrombie apologized for his comment on Monday. And Schatz distanced himself from Abercrombie, telling the Washington Post in a statement, "I do not question the authenticity of Senator Inouye’s letter."
It wasn't the first time Schatz was forced to put some daylight between himself and his former boss. Schatz recently said he did not agree with Abercrombie's expressed belief in an interview with The Post's Philip Rucker last year that Hanabusa, 62, is too old to build the kind of seniority Inouye built over many decades in Congress.
Schatz, 41, told The Post, "I think that this race should be about our record. There have been various attempts to put words in my mouth and to make this race about various ways to divide our community."
Relitigating the terms of Schatz's appointment plays right into the hands of Hanabusa, who is underscoring her close ties to the late senator in her campaign. She has the backing of Inouye's widow as well as the support of former senator Daniel Akaka, who served with Inouye.
Schatz's campaign declined to comment beyond what the senator told The Post. Hanabusa's spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Schatz isn't the only one facing a contested Democratic primary. Abercrombie, who polls show is vulnerable, has a Democratic challenger of his own to deal with. The divisions are the latest incarnations of a long-running split in the state Democratic Party.
They may be running in separate races, but what Abercrombie says inevitably affects Schatz. And lately, it hasn't been dong him much good.