Saturday night was arguably the biggest night in Brian Schatz’s political career, as the results of Hawaii’s Democratic primary would determine whether he would remain Hawaii’s senior United States senator, or whether he would go down in defeat after less than two years in office. (In overwhelmingly Democratic Hawaii, the general election is expected to be little more than a formality.) Win or lose, he would know his future.
Except that Saturday came and went, and Schatz’s future remains murky. Though Schatz, who is Jewish, leads primary opponent Colleen Hanabusa by 1,635 votes, the results are up in the air, and may remain so for weeks to come. That is because two precincts in the Puna district of Hawaii’s Big Island were unable to vote thanks to damage from Hurricane Iselle, and will have another three weeks in which to mail in absentee ballots.
This marks just the latest bizarre turn in Schatz’s short and politically turbulent Senate tenure. In December of 2012, Schatz, then the lieutenant governor, was appointed to fill the seat left vacant by the death of legendary and long-serving Sen. Daniel Inouye. The appointment was particularly controversial because Inouye, in a letter, had asked Gov. Neil Abercrombie to appoint U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to fill the vacant seat. Like Inouye, Hanabusa is a Japanese-American. Abercrombie’s decision to appoint his own political ally, Schatz, was perceived as a snub not only to the revered Inouye but to Hawaii’s politically influential Japanese-American population.
Oddly, Schatz’s appointment made him the state’s senior senator, as he took office roughly a week before Hawaii’s other, newly elected senator Mazie Hirono.
Hanabusa then challenged Schatz in the Democratic primary. Schatz quickly garnered support both from President Obama, beloved in Hawaii as a native son, and from liberal groups across the country. He raised more money than Hanabusa, but the race was generally regarded a toss-up going into election day — and it remains so afterwards.
In balance, the odds likely favor Schatz. As Jeff Singer of the left-leaning but statistically rigorous Daily Kos Elections points out, Schatz’s current margin, and the fact that the remaining precincts have 8,255 eligible voters, mean that Hanabusa would have to win an overwhelming margin of the remaining votes to triumph. However, Schatz leads in the neighboring precincts by a 52-45 margin.
Schatz’s patron, Abercrombie, has not been so fortunate. He was obliterated in the Democratic primary by a 66-31 margin, in part because of the Inouye-Schatz-Hanabusa kerfuffle.