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Neil Abercrombie’s head-scratcher

On paper, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D) was the clear favorite to become the next senator from Hawaii.

When it comes to appointments, though, paper doesn't matter; the will of a sitting governor — and nobody else — does.

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz speaks at the state Capitol in Honolulu on Dec. 26 after Gov. Neil Abercrombie, right, announced he was appointing Schatz to fill the seat vacated by the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye. (Audrey McAvoy/Associated Press)

Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) surprised a lot of people Wednesday when he selected his lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz, over Hanabusa for the seat of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

Inouye and his staff had made clear in the days since the longtime senator's death that his political ally Hanabusa was his choice of successor. Inouye had taken care to promote Hanabusa's career over the years, and as Inouye was a very popular, iconic figure in Hawaii, it was hard to see Abercrombie going against those wishes.

Instead, the governor chose to roll the dice. And it's pretty easy to see how that could backfire — as Senate appointments have been known to do.

In contrast to Inouye, Abercrombie is pretty unpopular these days, with polls throughout 2012 showing his approval rating hovering around 40 percent and about half the state's voters viewing him unfavorably — despite the state's huge Democratic lean.

That's not a great position to be fighting from.

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Abercrombie leads a party with a distinct divide between his own faction and Inouye's. Besides supporting Hanabusa's rise, Inouye encouraged former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann to run against Abercrombie in the 2010 gubernatorial primary and criticized Abercrombie for resigning his congressional seat during that campaign. (Inouye never endorsed Hannemann, though, and criticized him late in the race for a racially charged mailer.)

Which is really where this pick likely came from. Though it might have been a politically difficult one for Abercrombie to make, in the end, he's wagering that it's worth the momentary pains of picking a political ally over a potential adversary.

"I do think there must be internal Hawaii politics at work. Inouye and (Sen. Daniel) Akaka are the Old Guard; Abercrombie is part of the new," said one Democratic strategist. "This does not make any logical/political sense, so therefore it must be personal."

In addition, politicians are fiercely protective of their prerogatives. When it was reported that retiring Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), for example, was pushing South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to appoint Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to his Senate seat, DeMint aides quickly shot down the reports.

It's not hard to see Abercrombie recoiling at the pressure from Inouye and his staff to pick their candidate — especially given their political history.

From here, we can likely expect Abercrombie and/or Schatz to face primary opposition in 2014. At that point, we'll see whether the governor's gamble paid off.

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

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