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Governor's decision to defy Inouye still reverberates as Hawaii primary looms

An increasingly contentious Senate Democratic primary is on tap next month in Hawaii -- but the outcome will do more than select the likely successor to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D). It will also settle a generational showdown.

In the Aug. 9 primary, voters will also set the slates in a gubernatorial race, where Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) is seeking a second term, and in a crowded open seat race for the Honolulu-based 1st District.

But it's the competitive Senate Democratic primary that has drawn much attention, as Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa compete for the remaining two years of Inouye's term.

In a series of debates in recent weeks, Hanabusa has repeatedly slammed Schatz over his appointment to the Senate in late 2012, when Abercrombie selected his then-lieutenant governor to succeed Inouye despite the dying senator's public declaration that Hanabusa should be his successor.

"That's an amazing feat -- one vote created somebody as the United States senator for the state of Hawaii," Hanabusa said at a debate in early July, according to the Associated Press. "That's something you've got to admire."

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Abercrombie's decision to buck Inouye, the state's political godfather, also effectively set up a showdown between the island's younger white politicians and more entrenched Asian-American officeholders.

During their recent on-air encounters, Schatz, who is 41, and Hanabusa, 63, have taken aim at each other's legislative records with both sides arguing the other has produced little of value in their respective chambers.

"You do not have an active record as a legislator in the Congress. You do not have a distinguished record in the United States House," Schatz said to Hanabusa at a debate last week.

He went on to tout his service on both the Energy and Natural Resources, and Commerce, Science and Transportation panels. "On the other hand, I hit the ground running. I'm now the chair of a tourism committee; I'm the chair of the water and power committee."

Hanabusa, who was elected to the House in 2010 after a dozen years in the state Senate, later criticized Schatz's voting record: "When you look at what he votes for, you can always count on Brian to vote with the leadership and not in the best interests of Hawaii."

The duo also sparred over Hanabusa's vote in 2011 to delay U.S. EPA rules limiting mercury and other emissions for boilers, known as Boiler MACT.

"I voted against Boiler MACT for one reason: I thought that that rule was ill-conceived and it would have caused the demise of ... the last sugar plantation that we have," Hanabusa said, arguing her vote aimed to save 800 jobs at a sugar factory in Maui. "You really have to understand what you're talking about before you make these statements."

Schatz fired back that the sugar plant remains in business: "You don't have to choose between the economy and the environment."

But despite the candidates' at-times caustic exchanges, Neal Milner, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, said the Senate primary has failed to produce a "burning issue" for voters to base their decisions on.

"The average Democrat here is so frightened by what Republicans are doing in Congress that all they're mainly interested in is a person who can do a good job and maybe build up the kind of seniority that Dan Inouye had," Milner said.

He also dismissed the candidates' efforts to diminish each other's records in recent weeks: "It's a little hard to compare Senate to the House, but they're both solid liberals. Schatz is a little more to the left. The candidates' problems are that they're both confident people who believe the same thing."

Instead, Milner asserted the race is more of a fight for the state's progressive Democratic voters.

Milner said Schatz, who claims an edge in most polling to date, can credit his advantage in the race in large part to the endorsements he has claimed from groups like the League of Conservation Voters and the support of President Obama, who was born in Hawaii and grew up there. Hanabusa has support from local officials, including former Sen. Daniel Akaka (D).

Schatz has also led the money chase, raising $4.8 million through the end of June according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He retained $1.4 million in the bank at that time.

Hanabusa, who recently loaned her campaign more than $100,000, raised $2.1 million at the end of June, retaining $1.1 million at that time.

The winner of the Democratic primary will be heavily favored in November, against the victor of a four-way Republican primary that includes ex-state Rep. Cam Cavasso (R) and social worker John Roco, who made a failed bid for the Senate Republican nomination in the 2012 election.

"I don't think the average voter has all that much trouble with the candidates," Milner said. "They'll be satisfied enough so that whoever wins will cream the Republican in the general."

Schatz appointment hampers governor's re-election bid

The Senate fight has, at times, also bled into the gubernatorial primary, in which Abercrombie faces a strong challenge from state Sen. David Ige (D).

In an early July debate, Abercrombie defended his decision to appoint Schatz, lamenting that a letter written by Inouye supporting Hanabusa's appointment had garnered public attention.

"I regret that the sentiments and the content of the letter that was given to me became an issue," Abercrombie said in response to a moderator's question. "It obscured the conversations that the senator and I had. ... The senator's conversation directly to me was, 'In the end, you know what my preference is but you have to make the best decision as governor as to what you think is in the best interest of Hawaii.' ... I did that."

But Ige, who has a picture of himself with Inouye on his campaign website, criticized Abercrombie, arguing that by selecting Schatz, he had directly contradicted Inouye's directive.

"I have heard from many, many people that they were disappointed that the governor did not follow through on Senator Inouye's last wish," Ige said. "Many have said after so many years of dedicated service to the people of Hawaii, how can a simple request be ignored?"

According to a Honolulu Civil Beat poll conducted in June, Ige claimed a minuscule lead over Abercrombie in the three-way Democratic primary.

The survey of 1,078 registered voters gave Ige 48 percent to Abercrombie's 47 percent, while another 15 percent of voters remained undecided. The poll had a 3.6-point margin of error.

But whether Ige will be able to maintain that lead could depend on his ability to increase his name recognition among voters in the race's final weeks.

The same poll gave Ige a 47 percent approval rating, but also found that 45 percent of those polled did not know enough about him, who has spent 20 years in the state Senate, to give an opinion. The survey also gave Abercrombie, who spent 20 years in Congress and has held local, state or federal office since the mid-1970s, a 51 percent disapproval rating.

The winner of the Democratic primary is expected to face likely Republican nominee and former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, as well as former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, a longtime Democrat who is running as an independent. Despite Hawaii's Democratic bent, the general election is expected to be competitive -- especially if Hannemann gains traction. Hannemann has twice run unsuccessfully for governor and has run unsuccessfully for Congress three times.

Battle for Hanabusa's House seat

Voters will also winnow a crowded primary field in the open 1st District seat, which Hanabusa is giving up after two terms to seek the Senate nomination.

The more compact of Hawaii's two districts has drawn seven Democratic contenders, including state Rep. Mark Takai, state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, Honolulu City Councilman Ikaika Anderson and Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang.

A May poll conducted for Civil Beat showed Kim leading the field with 30 percent followed by Takai with 24 percent. Another 23 percent of voters remained undecided and no other candidate broke out of single digits.

But since that time, Takai has picked up key endorsements from groups including the Sierra Club Hawaii, VoteVets.org and various unions, as well as the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

The winner of the Democratic nomination is expected to face former Rep. Charles Djou (R). Djou won a special election for the remainder of Abercrombie's House term in 2010 but lost a bid for a full term to Hanabusa that same year. His comeback bids have been unsuccessful thus far.

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