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U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz was leading U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa early Sunday morning in the Democratic primary race to replace the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. Hanabusa started off the evening with a slight lead but the results flipped as the night wore on.
The latest election results released Sunday morning had Schatz with 48.5 percent of the vote and Hanabusa with 47.8 percent, as of 3:25 a.m. Sunday.
Just 1,635 votes separate the two.
When news broke of the swing in Schatz’s favor his campaign headquarters erupted in cheers.
But no one was declaring victory. Some votes were still not counted, including two districts in Puna where the election was postponed due to Tropical Storm Iselle.
Hanabusa spoke to a crowd of about 200 people who were gathered at her election party at The Hall of Laborers’ Local 368 in Kalihi. Supporters were using their Hanabusa signs as fans to try to cool off from the muggy heat.
“It’s been an amazing campaign,” Hanabusa said to cheers.
She reminded supporters that she was out funded and had less money to spend on ads.
“This election is not over,” she declared. “It’s far from over.”
Asked if Hanabusa would be taking the campaign to the Big Island, Peter Boylan, her campaign manager said, “Yes. Definitely.”
There are about 8,000 registered voters in the two districts who will be allowed to vote by absentee ballots if they haven’t done so already.
Schatz climbed up on the stage at his campaign gathering shortly after Hanabusa ended her speech.
He introduced his family and implored people to remember what was still happening on the Big Island where many people are still struggling without electricity and other problems caused by the tropical storms.
He acknowledged that his campaign has been tougher than expected.
“This is not how we drew this thing up,” the senator said when finally addressing his supporters, “but it’s a good night for us.”
He told Civil Beat he intends to fly to the Big Island as voters there cast the final ballots of the primary election.
Schatz also said he expected a close race even though his own polls had shown him with a double-digit lead over Hanabusa earlier in the campaign.
“We’re thrilled with the result,” he said. “There are still votes to be counted, but we’re thrilled with where we are.”
The remaining two Big Island precincts in the hard-hit Puna area are waiting for further guidelines on how to proceed with conducting a mail-in vote and results won’t be available for days. About 8,000 registered voters are in those two precints, officials say.
“The night is young, this election is still going,” Hanabusa said.
The campaign between Schatz and Hanabusa started almost immediately after the death of U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye on Dec. 17, 2012.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie ignored Inouye’s dying wish to appoint Hanabusa to fill out the remainder of his term. Instead, Abercrombie picked Schatz, his lieutenant governor, to head to Washington, D.C.
Hanabusa was upset about being passed over by Abercrombie, and tried to use the slight to her advantage during the campaign.
Many of Inouye’s supporters backed Hanabusa in her bid to unseat Schatz, including the late senator’s widow and retired U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka.
But even with Inouye’s camp standing behind her, Hanabusa struggled to raise funds and bring in endorsements.
Schatz outraised the congresswoman nearly 2-to-1 in campaign contributions, which allowed him to run a more sophisticated campaign and stay out front with advertising and other messaging.
He also received key endorsements from President Barack Obama and many of his Democratic colleagues, including U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.
Schatz and Hanabusa struggled to differentiate themselves on the issues. Each is considered a liberal Democrat, and they tend to fall along party lines on all the major talking points.
This often left the campaigns arguing about the minutiae of particular congressional votes.
Social Security and Iraq became major talking points in the months leading up to the elections.
Schatz and Hanabusa accused each other of trying to cut entitlement programs for seniors, although both have strong views about protecting Social Security and Medicare.
Obama’s decision to send troops back to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy also divided the lawmakers.
Schatz supported the move, saying it was important for America’s long-term diplomacy goals, while Hanabusa worried about mission creep.
The contest has had some non-Inouye-related drama.
In particular, she attempted to link Schatz to the governor’s unpopular attempt to tax pensions, something the senator said he disagreed with.
The winner of the Senate seat will serve only the remaining two years of Inouye’s term, so the contest may be a bit of a dress rehearsal for the 2016 race.
The Democratic primary winner is the strong favorite to win the general election against presumed Republican nominee Cam Cavasso, who is currently leading the field in his race.
Cavasso is a former state representative from Waimanalo. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010 against Inouye and lost by 51 percentage points.
Other candidates on the ballot included Joy Allison, Brian Evans, Harry J. Friel, Jr., Michael Kokoski, Eddie Pirkowski, Arturo Pacheco Reyes and John P. Roco.
— Civil Beat reporter Sophie Cocke contributed to this report.
For complete election results, visit the Hawaii State Elections Office.