PAHOA, Hawaii (AP) — Sen. Brian Schatz beat U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Hawaii, closing out a tight, emotional race that went into overtime after a tropical storm kept some voters from the polls.
Schatz extended his slim vote lead late Friday during a makeup election for thousands of voters in two remote precincts who couldn’t cast ballots during the state’s regular primary last Saturday because of blocked roads and power outages caused by Tropical Storm Iselle.
The incumbent senator came into the makeup primary with an advantage, but both candidates spent dozens of hours over the past week delivering water and handing out food to residents in the Big Island’s Puna region, an often-neglected rural area that was ravaged by the storm a week ago. On Friday, Schatz and Hanabusa campaigned on the side of the road leading to the polling station, where a steady stream of voters lined up to cast their ballots.
“This was obviously an extremely hard fought race, but we’re gratified that the voters heard our message and recognized that I’ve been working hard for the people of Hawaii,” Schatz said in an interview with The Associated Press late Friday.
The race to fill the rest of the beloved, late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s term divided Democrats in Hawaii, with some loyal to the state’s grandfather of politics and other eager for a fresh set of leaders free from the old guard. Some Democrats were offended after Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Schatz to Inouye’s seat after his death in 2012, despite Inouye’s wish that the governor chose Hanabusa to replace him.
In another race that set Democrats against each other, Abercrombie lost his primary last Saturday in a stunning defeat to a state senator, becoming the first Hawaii governor to lose a primary re-election bid.
The Senate campaign had been somewhat personal battle that pitted two politicians with few policy differences in a race with several emotional tinges. Hanabusa had said she didn’t consider Schatz a true incumbent, while Schatz played up his endorsement from President Barack Obama and argued that he has proven himself early in his Senate career. Schatz also outspent Hanabusa by $1 million during his campaign, and his ads dominated TV and radio.
In the days leading up to Friday’s makeup primary, Hanabusa tried to delay the election to give area residents more time to recover from the storm, but she lost a court challenge.
In an interview with reporters late Friday, Hanabusa thanked her supporters for their help conducting a campaign with a “major money deficit.”
“That is one of the most humbling and phenomenal things about elections, it’s the relationships that we make, the relationships that we earn,” she said. “And I just want to say ‘Mahalo’ to everyone who has given their heart and soul to this election.”
Even with the drama of Tropical Storm Iselle, many voters in the Big Island’s Puna region had Inouye’s dying wish on their mind. But in some cases, that didn’t work in Hanabusa’s favor.
“I loved Dan Inouye, but just go on your record, don’t invoke his name,” said Leonard Feliciano, 60, who voted for Schatz on Friday. “Don’t play on our hearts. We need to move on.”
Other voters lamented that Friday’s makeup primary came too soon after Iselle. Some said they had difficulty getting to polling places because of downed trees that had yet to be removed after the storm.
“They made a big deal that ‘Yay, Puna has a say,‘ but the reality is people are in an absolute state of crisis,” said Christina Bryan, 41, a teacher who lives in an area where the polls were open but her road was blocked, preventing her from voting. “I’m a respected member of my community and I want my vote to count.”
Turnout in the two precincts was down nearly one-third compared with the 2012 primary, with about 3,000 people casting ballots during early voting and on Friday.
Aina Campbell, a retired caregiver, said she would have voted for Hanabusa but couldn’t get to the polls on election day.
“For the governor who lost to ignore the request on a dying man’s bed — I don’t believe Schatz earned the position yet, and Hanabusa has,” Campbell said.
Schatz is expected to cruise through the November general election in the heavily Democratic island state. Republican Cam Cavasso won the party’s nomination last week. Statewide, more than 4 in 5 voters pulled ballots to cast votes for Democrats. Voters do not register for one party or another in Hawaii.
Cathy Bussewitz can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cbussewitz
Associated Press Writers Oskar Garcia and Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu and Karin Stanton and Marco Garcia in Pahoa contributed to this report.