In the senatorial contest between U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, it can be challenging to find clear ideological differences.

Both are Democrats in a left-leaning state, and their votes tend to align with their party. In terms of their track records in Washington, it can be about a sliver here or a nuance there.

But campaigns are often fought — and won — by making the right contrasts.

Schatz and Hanabusa both admit they’re similar when it comes to how they vote, but they’re also trying to draw clear distinctions between now and the Aug. 9 primary.

“Our records, what we’ve done, how we’ve approached it is very important,” Hanabusa told Civil Beat in one of two recent interviews.

“Issues may not differentiate us so much, but this is a question of the job we’re being elected to do. We’re being elected to represent the state of Hawaii in the ultimate legislature of the world.”

She said voters decisions might be less about wide gaps in the candidates’ voting records and more about the way one or the other candidate represents Hawaii in the nation’s capital.

Hanabusa emphasized the importance of her local roots, her accessibility to citizens, the importance of electing women to Washington and her experience as a top leadership figure in the Legislature.

Schatz has taken a policy-based approach to his own role, perhaps partly to neutralize any possible efforts by his opponent to draw attention to his background and race.

“There are real differences between the two of us,” Schatz told Civil Beat during a recent interview. “I’m not suggesting she’s a bad Democrat and I’m a good one or any such thing. But I think there are going to be opportunities for distinctions to be drawn on policy.”

Crunching the Numbers

A key issue in the primary race is likely to be the bipartisan budget deal Congress passed in December and that was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The agreement negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was widely interpreted as a significant compromise that would temporarily put an end to years of intense partisanship and threats of government shutdowns.

Schatz voted in December for the bill along with all of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, including Sen. Mazie Hirono.

The budget bill also passed the House with strong support from both parties.

But Hanabusa aligned herself with opponents of the budget deal in the House where 163 Democrats voted in favor and 32 against. A large majority of Republicans also voted in favor 169 versus 62 against.

But in the Senate, a body that she is campaigning to join to represent politically blue Hawaii, not a single Democrat voted against the budget deal. And four out of every five Republican Senators voted against.

Such a vote could be portrayed as a principled act of courage and a willingness to look beyond party interests — or it could be painted as a break from Democratic party discipline.

Hanabusa told Civil Beat that she felt the bill unfairly targeted seniors, military retirees and the unemployed. Specifically, she said she didn’t like that the bill didn’t extend long-term unemployment benefits and that it would extend Medicare cuts for an additional two years.

Other components of the bill that bothered Hanabusa included a reduction in retirement benefits for new federal workers and cuts that were made to cost-of-living adjustments for retired military personnel.

But not surprisingly, Schatz cited Hanabusa’s vote in the interview with Civil Beat as a “real difference” between the candidates.

“It was incredibly important for Hawaii,” Schatz said. “When you depend on federal funds you ought to vote for the federal budget.”

Hanabusa justified another vote as being based on principle. In February, she went against a bill that would have restored those cost-of-living cuts — again, she was in the minority. The bill passed the House 326-90.

That bill called for the extension of cuts to Medicare for one year to cover the cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees, something Hanabusa said is “bad policy, particularly when it means putting the burden on our kupuna.”

The Senate passed the bill 95-3. Hanabusa was the only member of the Hawaii delegation to vote against it.


Schatz and Hanabusa have also taken different votes on spying on foreigners.

Schatz’s first vote as a U.S. senator was against the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That law allowed the federal government to continue using warrantless wiretapping and surveillance to monitor foreigners who are suspected of spying or terrorism. It did not allow the government to spy on U.S. citizens without a court order.

Schatz voted in December 2012 along with then-U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka and 18 other Democrats to oppose the measure, placing them in the minority of their own party. The extension ultimately passed 73-23 and was later signed into law by the president.

Hanabusa, however, had already voted to extend the federal government’s wiretapping privileges in September 2012. She said at the time that the bill wasn’t perfect but that it was a “bipartisan solution to our national security strategy that balances our foreign intelligence needs that support on-going counter-terrorism operations with protecting our citizens’ rights to privacy.”

Republicans overwhelmingly supported the bill, providing 227 of the 301 votes to pass the measure. Hanabusa was one of 74 Democrats to support the extension. There were 111 Democrats who voted against it.

Hirono, who was then in the House, did not vote on the reauthorization measure. At the time she was running for Senate against former Gov. Linda Lingle.

Policy Matters

Not every point of contention between Hanabusa and Schatz can be measured by a vote. Sometimes the two simply disagree on policy.

For instance, Schatz wants to make drug companies pay a rebate to the federal government as a way to reduce spending for Medicare. It’s a plan estimated to save Medicare $157 billion over 10 years.

But Hanabusa balked at the measure, saying that the drug companies would likely pass the cost onto consumers.

The two also have disagreements over oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which is home to wolves, polar bears, snow geese, caribou and muskox.

Hanabusa sides with Alaska’s two senators, favoring limited drilling of the refuge, but she wants to allow a group of Alaskan Natives the opportunity to benefit economically.

Schatz, a passionate clean energy advocate, has said he wants the refuge off limits to oil and gas drilling, a view he shares with Hirono.

Smiles Versus Substance

Schatz and Hanabusa will likely highlight the difference in their voting records on the campaign trail, in advertising and in debates. And they are sure to spar over policy issues, such as national security, the military and conservation. But there is a question that may override all of that: Will the people who decide the primary really care about the candidates’ often slim differences on such issues?

“It used to be that you would pay close attention to voting records because candidates in the same party could vote substantially differently,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

“But that’s no longer the case because voting is so polarized now that you could predict that they would vote the same on nearly all issues.”

And, he added: “Hawaii is so liberal and so Democratic that a Democratic senator from Hawaii is never going to deviate from the accepted Democratic position. It would be insane.”

Sabato is the head of the Center for Politics at his university and runs a website called Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which tracks and analyzes elections around the country.

One post looks at Obama’s recent endorsement of Schatz and what it might mean for the upcoming primary. It also touches on some of the other outside factors that might play an influence, such as ethnicity and “faction.”

As the Hanabasa campaign often notes, the late-U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye wanted her to be his successor, but Gov. Neil Abercrombie chose Schatz, his lieutenant governor, to fill the seat instead.

Sabato said the faction that a voter aligns with — Inouye or Abercrombie — could play a role in the outcome of the primary.

In fact, he said that affiliation, along with other traits — such as personality and gender — will likely have more sway on the race than policy differences.

“The research on primaries shows that personality and these other distinguishing characteristics really do make a difference,” Sabato said.

“It’s more about life positions than issue positions. (Hanabusa and Schatz) are very different people, but on the issues they’re in agreement 95-plus percent of the time.”

Contact Nick Grube via email at or follow him on Twitter at @NickGrube.

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