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U.S. Senate too close to call

By B.J. Reyes & Derrick DePledge

LAST UPDATED: 11:47 p.m. HST, Aug 10, 2014

Neither U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz nor his Democratic primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, went to bed after Saturday's primary election knowing who won their party's nomination.

In one of the closest races in state history, Schatz and Hanabusa were separated by a mere 1,635 votes with all but two precincts accounted for and potentially as many as 8,000 votes from Hawaii island still to be tallied. 

Election officials still need to tabulate votes from two Puna polling sites that were closed as a result of roads damaged by Tropical Storm Iselle, affecting about 8,000 registered voters. Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said ballots would be mailed to those who did not vote prior to Saturday by mail or walk-in and voters would have several days to return them.

Neither camp conceded Saturday night.

"We've got some more votes to be counted and we'll see what happens there," Schatz said in an interview with Hawaii News Now. "We came from behind and we like where we're at."

Schatz said he would wait until Sunday morning to start strategizing on the extended voting period. 

Roland Casamina, a Schatz campaign co-chairman, said personal calls to Puna voters will be critical. 

"We really have to go and contact the people we know on that island," he said.

Former Gov. John Waihee said it's going to be an "on the ground" campaign with lots of hand-shaking. 

"I think the senator will do very well there," he said. 

Hanabusa had led since the results first started coming in, but Schatz closed the margin as more and more precincts reported.

"This election is not over," Hanabusa told a crowd of enthusiastic supporters at her primary night rally at the Hawaii Laborers' Union Local 368 hall in Kalihi. "It is far from over. Anything can happen."

Afterward, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Irene Hirano Inouye, the widow of U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, all took the stage to reinforce that the race was not yet over. Hirono and Gabbard also visited the Schatz camp and a rally for Mark Takai, the winner of the Democratic primary to fill Hanabusa's congressional seat.

Hanabusa said she would not have done anything differently.

"I don't think there's anything different that we would have done because it was constrained by a variety of different things, which was the amount of money that was available in this race, the external forces that came in -- the mainland money," she said. "It's very difficult because it isn't over yet. We'll just have to wait and see and see where those last precincts go."

Hanabusa was looking to make history. 

No U.S. senator -- appointed or elected -- has lost an election since statehood.

The primary winner will meet Cam Cavasso, a former state lawmaker, in the November general election. Cavasso won handily in a field including three other Republican contenders.

The victor in the general election will complete the last two years remaining of Inouye's term, ending in 2016.

The Democratic race went well into the night, with polls showing a tight competition. 

At Schatz's headquarters in an office in the lower lobby of Pioneer Plaza downtown, roughly 175 supporters gathered in the small room for the returns. Supporters in the crowd included state Rep. Karl Rhoads and former state lawmaker Norman Mizu-gu-chi with live music by the Kaluhiwa Brothers, Kekoa and Keawe.

Mike Mauzey came to Pioneer Plaza to show his support for the candidate he voted for earlier Saturday. Mauzey, security supervisor for the high-rise retirement community 15 Craigside in Nuu-anu, said Schatz stopped by the facility a week ago to talk with residents, and that got his vote. 

"He was impressive," Mauzey said. "And plus, he's been a senator for two years. That's better than somebody who hasn't been."

Although the campaign officially began in May 2013 with Hanabusa's announcement to surrender her seat in the U.S. House to challenge Schatz, their rivalry formed earlier, beginning almost as soon as Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Schatz, his former lieutenant governor, to replace Ino-uye in December 2012 instead of granting the senator's last wish. Inouye, in the hour before he died, had a letter delivered to Abercrombie reminding the governor that he preferred Hanabusa succeed him.

The appointment set off a rigorous primary campaign that was more venomous than the Demo-cratic primary for governor between Abercrombie and state Sen. David Ige. The two races overlapped on both emotional and political levels.

Abercrombie called the appointment strategic, citing Schatz's age -- 41 -- as an asset because of his ability to accumulate seniority in the Senate in a manner similar to Ino-uye. Hanabusa, 63, rejected the argument and the notion that seniority was given, noting that whoever filled the seat would have to continue to win re-election to serve as long as Inouye, who rose to president pro tempore of the Senate after four decades in the chamber.

The senator's widow and several prominent Inouye political allies and staff backed Hanabusa's primary challenge. Retired U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, former Gov. George Ari-yo-shi and former Gov. Ben Cayetano also endorsed the congresswoman.

But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Senate leaders gave their allegiance to Schatz despite their old colleague's wishes. Schatz also won the endorsement of Hawaii-born President Barack Obama and former Vice President Al Gore.

The closeness of the race also was reflected in polling. The Hawaii Poll last month had shown Hanabusa with a single-digit lead, while other public and private polls indicated that Schatz had the edge. The largest difference between the polls was that the Hawaii Poll projected a smaller percentage of white voters would participate in the primary than the other surveys presumed.

Money poured into the race as well.

Schatz raised about $5 million and received independent help from national progressive groups such as, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America, along with labor groups such as Working Families for Hawaii and the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly.

The League of Conservation Voters spent more than $504,670 on outreach in Hawaii on behalf of Schatz.

Hanabusa raised about $2.9 million. While her campaign aides complained about national interest groups trying to influence the primary for Schatz, Women Vote!, a political arm of Emily's List, spent more than $460,490 in the islands for Hanabusa. The national group supports Democratic women who favor abortion rights.

"We were able to deliver our message, but she did it the old-school way: She went grass-roots, door to door," John Salsbury, Hanabusa campaign manager, said in an interview with Hawaii News Now. "She went out there neighborhood to neighborhood, a lot of community meetings, a lot of stew and rice, a lot of lunches.

"She really took it to the neighbor islands and out into the communities across Oahu and just worked it."

The primary was the first election in Hawaii in more than a half-century in which Inouye was not on the ballot or out supporting fellow Demo-cratic candidates. But the iconic senator's presence was still felt in both the Senate and governor's races, and the results will be part of the final chapter of his political career.

Hanabusa visited her family grave site in Mililani on Saturday. The congresswoman also stopped by Inouye's grave at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, where she left an orchid plant. She performed a similar ritual before some of her debates with Schatz.

Ken Inouye, the son of the late senator, said he was optimistic for a Hanabusa victory. 

As for what his father would say of the race: "What I believe he would say is that it's not a matter of me, it is a matter for the people of the state of Hawaii and how well they will be represented," Ken Inouye said. "At the end of the day, that's what it's all about. It's not about who's running, but who is being represented."


Star-Advertiser reporters Andrew Gomes and June Watanabe contributed to this report.

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