- Special Projects
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz will likely have almost a decade of senatorial experience the next time his name appears on an election ballot.
Hawaii’s senior U.S. senator, who was appointed to the position in December 2012 after the death of Dan Inouye, is seeking his first full six-year term this year.
But unlike in 2014, Schatz, 43, doesn’t face any significant challengers in this year’s contest. He’s up against a field of 11 relative unknowns and also-rans, none of whom have any real shot at winning.
He has the backing of the Democratic Party establishment, both in Washington, D.C., and in the islands. His campaign coffers are flush with cash — $3 million on hand at last count — which means he has the ability to mount an intimidating defense if pressed.
And the senator has avoided scandals or even significant political missteps that could undermine his candidacy.
Schatz is a shoo-in.
“This isn’t even a contested election, not even at all,” said Neal Milner, a retired University of Hawaii political science professor. “Let’s just say Schatz has this wrapped up.”
Abercrombie chose Schatz, his lieutenant governor, over former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who then mounted a spirited campaign in 2014 to serve out the final two year’s of Inouye’s term.
It was a close race, but Schatz ultimately prevailed. Hanabusa is now running for her old seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“It’s only been a couple of years, but I think one of the interesting things about him is that he’s trying to become the same kind of senator that Sen. Inouye was,” Milner said.
“He’s chosen a route that’s highly respected in the Senate, where first you learn the ropes. You’re not going to become a rebel that way. You’re not going to become a controversial national figure that way. But you go there to get the job done.”
Schatz has established himself as a leader on climate change and renewable energy. Such issues resonate with his Democratic base, particularly in Hawaii, the most oil-dependent state and vulnerable to rising global temperatures.
Schatz serves on key committees that allow him to weigh in on federal issues that have direct influence on Hawaii and its residents. Among his assignments are those related to military spending, Indian affairs, technological innovation, aviation and ocean fisheries.
But by far Schatz’s most coveted position is on the Senate Committee on Appropriations, which has heavy influence over how federal money is allocated. Before his death, Inouye was the chairman of appropriations, where he earned a reputation as a benefactor for Hawaii interests.
“Nowadays it’s not enough to say that something is important to your state. What you have to do is make the case that what’s happening in your state is important for the national interest.” — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz
Schatz admitted it’s more difficult to bring federal dollars home in an era in which politics have become increasingly polarized and congressional earmarks are no longer allowed.
“Nowadays it’s not enough to say that something is important to your state,” Schatz said. “What you have to do is make the case that what’s happening in your state is important for the national interest.”
In December, Schatz announced that military spending increased in Hawaii by $200 million and that an additional $10 million was added to the budget for transportation projects. Included in the haul was $60 million for clean energy research at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam that wasn’t included in the president’s budget.
Schatz said he was able to make the case that investing that money in Hawaii would benefit the U.S. Department of Defense because it would be able to learn new ways to “scale up” smart grids and better supply power to the bases and installations located elsewhere.
“I’ve been able to help Hawaii,” Schatz said. “The dollar amounts have been increasing over the last year and half, but nobody is mistaking me for the chairman.”
Schatz is looking forward to the November election, if only for the national opportunity to wrest Senate control away from the Republicans.
He said he wants to continue leading the discussion on climate change, bringing more federal money to Hawaii and expanding his role in telecommunications.
But Schatz said the boost from working in a Democratic-controlled Senate could be moot should Donald Trump win the presidency. Then the chamber’s efforts would largely be spent preventing Trump from “doing fascistic things.”
Schatz rarely minces words when talking about Trump. It’s one of the few areas where the senator, who’s known for choosing his words carefully, indulges in provocative language to make a point.
“This goes way beyond how you feel about any individual issue or whether you consider yourself conservative, moderate or liberal,” Schatz said. “This is about whether or not the United States is going to elect someone who is mentally unfit, who is a racist, a bully, a bigot and a fraudster to the highest office in the land.”
He said there’s a reason why even some Republicans have heartburn about the possibility of a President Trump.
“There are good, patriotic people on the other side of the aisle,” Schatz said. “But this isn’t a question about him being a Republican. This is a question about him being a maniac.”
Not surprisingly, Schatz supports Hillary Clinton for president. He said she already understands Hawaii issues, as well as those facing the Asia-Pacific region.
“This is someone who doesn’t have to have Hawaii explained to her,” he said. “If there’s anybody who’s been prepared to hit the ground running it’s Hillary Clinton.”
Hardly anyone expects Schatz to have to campaign as hard as he did in 2014 to keep his job, although Makani Christensen wants to make the senator work harder than he’s had to so far.
Christensen, a businessman and former combat veteran, is one of four Democratic challengers in the Aug. 13 primary. He appears to be the only primary challenger who’s mounting a serious campaign.
He said he’s still frustrated that Schatz was appointed to the Senate over Hanabusa. Christensen also opposes the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a proposal of Schatz.
But Christensen understands how difficult it is to unseat an incumbent, especially one as popular as Schatz.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work,” Christensen said. “But I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t think there was a possibility to win.”