In Hawaiiʻs U.S. Senate primary race, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s campaign is making a special appeal to women voters.

“We are looking at drawing in more women to vote for Colleen. It is an important part of our election strategy,” said Jennifer Sabas, a top volunteer strategist for Hanabusa.

Schatz backers are slowly getting off the ground their own Women for Brian Schatz group.

Schatz supporter Trudy Schandler Wong says, “We don’t want people to assume that all women are going to turn out in droves to support Colleen just because she is a woman any more than women moved in lock-step to vote for Hillary Clinton. Women today are voting on the issues not gender.”

Hanabusa’s campaign office created her women’s group in November. The Women For Colleen have their own T-shirts with pink lettering and are about to launch their own website.

Supporters have already hosted a number of women’s events, including a drive to collect bottles of shampoo and lotion for homeless women and a gathering to make pink bracelets to encourage women to get mammograms. There’s also an event promoting locally grown food.

“Activities women care about,” said Sabas.

Videos from the gatherings are geared to show a fun and warm side of Hanabusa.

“I think it would be good for people to see the Colleen I’ve come to know over the years. She’s super smart, which can make her intimidating,” said Rona Suzuki, a campaign volunteer.

In one video, Hanabusa dances with supporters wearing pink gloves, using their arms to make the letters of her name.

The Women For Colleen literature highlights the support of Irene Hirano Inouye, the widow of the late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye. A web page includes Mrs. Inouye’s recipe for Busy Ladies Blueberry Jello.

Courtesy: Hanabusa campaign

A scene from the “Pink Gloves” video U.S. Rep Colleen Hanabusa made with women supporters.

Irene Inouye will be a key figure in Hanabusa’s campaign, not just as a prominent woman supporter but also to emphasize another of the campaign’s key messages — Dan Inouyeʻs reported wish to have Hanabusa succeed him in the U.S. Senate.

If the Inouye “legacy” issue rubs some critics the wrong way, Hanabusa’s volunteer strategist Sabas answers: “It’s the reality.”

Trudy Wong of the Women for Schatz group says, “that could backfire. It doesn’t sit right with me to have Irene Inouye coming here from the mainland to tell me to vote for Colleen Hanabusa.”

The Women for Schatz group organized on its own without any prompting from the Schatz campaign.

Schatz’s campaign director, Clay Schroers, says he was excited when the women called the campaign to say they wanted to help. “We generally want to work with people in whatever way they want to organize,” he said.

Schroers describes Schatz’s women’s group as one of many affinity groups offering to help the campaign.

“We also work with regional groups, and groups that focus on specific issues like the environment. Our campaign wants to provide entry points wherever people want to engage.”

Barbara Fischlowitz-Leong, a Schatz supporter, says Women for Schatz got off to a slow start after former Attorney General Margery Bronster and about 25 others met to brainstorm early last year — she says mainly because the women were busy with their jobs or helping other candidates such as Neil Abercombie.

Trudy Wong says about 15 women regrouped at a meeting at her Manoa house last week and are ready to move ahead with traditional campaign activities such as phone-banking and sign-waving.

Courtesy: Schatz campaign

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz gets help from women in his 2014 U.S. Senate campaign.

Women’s support groups and other affinity groups can be especially useful in today’s era of unrestricted third-party spending made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and McCutcheon v. FEC (April 2, 2014).

If a candidate is slammed in an expensive TV commercial paid for by a political action committee or third party, saying, for example, the candidate is unsupportive of women’s issues, the candidate can ask his women’s group to organize a news conference to combat the ad in a down-home way, outside of paid media.

Women’s support groups can also be important to male candidates running against female opponents who are perceived as strongly attractive to women.

When Ben Cayetano was running to be re-elected governor against Republican Linda Lingle in 1998, he said his polls showed he was unpopular with women. Cayetano said his women’s group was enormously helpful in reaching out to women who didn’t like him.

I remember covering one of the Women for Cayetano events in a banquet room at the Ilikai Hotel. Cayetano’s female support group made it a point to invite not just true believers but their women friends who detested the governor.

After the Cayetano-disliking guests settled into their seats, the governor in a very personal Oprah Winfrey-like style told them stories about his lonely and sometimes difficult childhood when he and his brother essentially had to raise themselves after his mother left them to become a taxi dancer in Wahiawa. Cayetano’s father was unable to help the boys at that time because he was away from home most days and evenings, working split shifts as a waiter at the Outrigger Canoe Club.

After the meeting I spoke with a few women who said Cayetano’s openness made them see him in a more favorable light.

Women’s support groups can also unintentionally spark a negative backlash. When attorney Rai Saint Chu, organizer of the Women for Neil Abercrombie, sent out an invitation to a luncheon at her Kahala home March 1, the invitation became an occasion for one his former supporters to bash Abercrombie in a critical e-mail, which was widely shared on the internet.

Former State Rep. Lyla Berg wrote, “I will have no part of trying to convince the public and my friends that Neil is the right person to ‘lead’ our State.’”

In her e-mail, Berg, a champion for early education, expressed her dismay over the state’s decision to tighten the admission age for children to enter kindergarten.

About 5,000 children will be excluded from entering kindergarten this year by a new law allowing only the children who have turned 5 by July 31 to enter kindergarten. Before, children could enter kindergarten if they turned 5 by Dec. 31.

Abercrombie supporter Rai Saint Chu says, “Lyla’s letter really did get around. She added. “It is everyone’s got a right to disagree.”

Gov. Abercrombie’s campaign press secretary Shane Peters wrote to Saint Chu after Berg’s letter to offer talking points to defend Abercrombie’s record on early childhood education.

Peters says the governor has proposed funding for different programs to address the needs of the children impacted by the change in the kindergarten entry age and by the elimination of the state’s junior
kindergarten program.

Saint Chu said her lunch was a success with 117 women attending and promising to help raise enough money to buy a full-page newspaper ad listing the names of a thousand women who support Abercrombie.

Thinking about women’s groups for candidates, I wondered why you never see a “Men for Hanabusa” or “Men for Schatz” group. Why don’t men band together by gender to help a candidate?

Schatz supporter Trudy Wong says: “Men do it differently. They support candidates with their checkbooks.”

Jennifer Sabas, Hanabusa’s top strategist, has a quick answer: “Because men are not as fun as women.”

Sabas said the Women for Hanabusa recently had a campaign event to promote food sustainability. Each woman guest was asked to bring a potluck dish of a locally grown food.

“Can you imagine a man doing that?” said Sabas.

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