Decades of Democratic dominance in Hawaii and huge fundraising advantages forecast easy rides for U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Rep. Colleen Hanabusa come Election Day.

But despite being favorites for the three congressional seats at stake this year in Hawaii, they have continued to raise and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to their most recent campaign finance filings with the Federal Election Commission.

The candidates’ spending priorities differ as they jockey for more power in the coming years. Schatz is giving more to the national Democratic effort while Hanabusa and Gabbard are more focused on their own campaigns.

And while Schatz and Hanabusa benefit from big donations from traditional sources, Gabbard is relying on smaller gifts solicited online.

All three are buying some campaign advertising, but it’s mostly self-promotional. There’s no need to attack their opponents, who lack money and name familiarity.

Instead, they are using their campaign money to curry favor and fill up war chests for future battles.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

Schatz, who is seeking his first full six-year term in the Senate, is directing a huge hunk of his campaign cash to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which works to help fellow Democrats in tight Senate races around the country.

Hanabusa — eyeing a return to her seat representing the 1st Congressional District, which covers Honolulu and urban Oahu — is re-energizing her campaign machine after two years out of elected office.

And Gabbard, who wants a third two-year term in the 2nd Congressional District seat, which includes the outer islands and rural Oahu, is pouring thousands of dollars into consultants and online advertising to leverage more money. 

Hawaii Democrats have not lost a general election race for a congressional seat in nearly 30 years, and their opponents have raised little if any money to mount a serious challenge this time around.

Helping Fellow Dems To Help Himself?

Schatz’s biggest competitor is Republican John Carroll, a lawyer who served in the Hawaii Legislature in the 1970s and lost previous bids for the U.S. Senate, House and governor. American Shopping candidate John Giuffre, Constitution Party candidate Joy Allison and Libertarian Michael Kokoski are also running.

Hawaii’s U.S. senators have all been Democrats since 1977, when Republican Hiram Fong retired.

Schatz raised $241,255 from July 25 to Sept. 30, and $3.91 million so far in this two-year election cycle, according to his October quarterly report. He spent $568,776 during the reporting period and had $2.22 million cash on hand.

Senator Brian Schatz speaks at the Democratic of Hawaii's unity breakfast held at the Dole Cannery Ballroom. 14 aug 2016
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, seen speaking here at the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s unity breakfast in August, has contributed $500,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Carroll raised $5,700 this summer, but has not reported spending or receiving anything since early August, according to the FEC.

Schatz received most of his money over the past couple months from political action committees that advocate for conservation, progressive values, airlines, nurses, Israel and other interests.

He invested most of his campaign cash in the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, writing a $200,000 check in August and a $150,000 check in September. That’s on top of $150,000 he donated in June, according to the prior quarterly report.

Schatz’s gambit could translate into a prime subcommittee chairmanship or other leadership role, especially if Democrats retake control of the chamber.

The committee has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to directly bolster Senate candidates’ campaigns while spending more than $31 million against Republicans seeking office, according to the Center for Responsive Politics

Schatz’s gambit could translate into a prime subcommittee chairmanship or other leadership role, especially if Democrats retake control of the chamber. He is currently a member of three Senate committees: Appropriations; Commerce, Science and Transportation; and Indian Affairs.

Democrats need to pick up at least four seats from Republicans to regain the majority. And that’s looking more likely as public disdain grows for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Schatz has also spent money locally, giving $6,000 to the Democratic Party of Hawaii and taking out $38,000 worth of newspaper ads, for example.

Going The Traditional Route

Hanabusa is running to fill the 1st Congressional District seat that has been empty since the death of Congressman Mark Takai in July.

Voters will be picking who they want to finish the final two months left on his term in a special election and, separately, who they want to serve the next two-year term that begins Jan. 3.

There are 10 candidates in the special election to serve out the remainder of Takai’s term, including Hanabusa, Republican Shirlene Ostrov and Libertarian Alan Yim — those are the only three on the ballot for the full term.

Colleen Hanabusa speaks during the Hawaii Democratic Party Unity Breakfast held at Dole Cannery ballroom. 14 aug 2016
Former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, seen here speaking at the Hawaii Democratic Party unity breakfast in August, has spent nearly $700,000 this election cycle. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The district has been represented by two Republicans in the past 45 years, and they served a combined five years in office. Pat Saiki is the only Republican to win a regular election, doing so in 1986 and 1988. Charles Djou is the most recent Republican to hold the seat, winning a special election in 2010 against two Democrats who split the vote.

Hanabusa raised $295,255 from July 25 to Sept. 30, and $699,313 so far this election cycle.

She spent $192,576 during the quarterly reporting period, bringing her total spending up to $276,887 this election.

Hanabusa has raked in campaign money from a cross-section of power players in Hawaii.

Hanabusa has $477,185 on hand, according to her October filing.

She mostly spent her campaign money on fundraising and advertising, including nearly $100,000 with Honolulu-based Anthology Marketing Group.

Like Schatz, she contributed money to the Democratic Party of Hawaii. She donated $5,000 in September and paid the party $1,500 for a subscription to access its registered voter database. But she did not donate money to a national Democratic effort during this period.

Hanabusa has been a politician for nearly 20 years, which included a stint as state Senate president and four years in Congress. But she has been out of office since narrowly losing a 2014 U.S. Senate primary against Schatz.

She has chaired the beleaguered Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board since April, but plans to step down before the election.

Hanabusa has raked in campaign money from a cross-section of power players in Hawaii.

They include longtime lobbyists such as Bob Toyofuku; prominent attorneys such as Louise Ing of Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing; land developers like Warren Haruki of Grove Farm; the former president of the University of Hawaii, MRC Greenwood; Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi; Hawaii Gas President Alicia Moy; Colbert Matsumoto of Island Insurance; hospital and shipping executives; and numerous political action committees.

Her donor list, typical for many longtime politicians in Hawaii, contrasts sharply with Gabbard’s.

Grassroots Fundraising Machine

Gabbard raised $427,378 from July 25 to Sept. 30, and has hauled in $1.92 million this election cycle.

She spent $304,299 during the reporting period, $872,486 this cycle, and has $2.04 million on hand.

Gabbard noted in her October quarterly report that she received 14,000 campaign contributions during the reporting period and that 60 percent were from individuals donating less than $200.

Democratic Unity breakfast Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. 14 aug 2016
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, speaking at the unity breakfast in August, has spent nearly $120,000 on internet advertising through Revolution Messaging, the same firm Bernie Sanders used. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Absent from her list of contributors are many of the Democratic Party of Hawaii establishment types that help propel other candidates into office.

Instead, Gabbard is receiving significant financial support from mainland donors — most of them relatively unknown except for $500 from Barbra Streisand, $10,000 from Vote Vets and $10,000 from Boeing.

It’s a remarkable feat that could set her up well to challenge Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono in 2018, as political insiders have speculated. And Gabbard continues to gain name recognition through regular appearances on cable TV news programs.

For now, Gabbard is working to secure another two years representing the 2nd Congressional District. She faces Republican Angela Kaaihue and nonpartisan candidate Richard Turner.

Gabbard’s decision to endorse Bernie Sanders likely cost her campaign contributions from more traditional Democratic sources, making it all the more important for her to find more ways to bring in money.

Democrats have always held this seat, and Gabbard’s opponents have not reported spending or raising any money this period.

Still, Gabbard spent $119,528 on internet advertising through Revolution Messaging. Based in Washington, D.C., the company bills itself as a “full-service digital agency fighting for progressive caucuses.”

It’s the same company that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders used in his race against against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Revolution cites Sanders as a case study, noting how he was polling at 3 percent in spring 2015 before his campaign launched and had no Democratic establishment support. The campaign quickly raised $218 million online, almost entirely from small donations.

Gabbard was a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee until resigning in February to support Sanders.

The decision likely cost her campaign contributions from more traditional Democratic sources, making it all the more important for her to find more ways to bring in money.

In emails disclosed earlier this month by Wikileaks, Darnell Strom, former director of the Clinton Foundation, told Gabbard that her endorsement of Sanders caused him to no longer trust her judgment and therefore not raise money for her campaign.

Aside from Revolution, Gabbard has also enlisted the services of Joe Trippi, who served as 2008 presidential candidate Howard Dean’s campaign manager. She paid $7,346 in consulting fees to him in late August.

Last year, she gave tens of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats to the U.S. House.

Gabbard has continued to donate to other congressional campaigns out of her Tulsi PAC. She gave nine different candidates each $1,000 in September.

Get engaged! Join in the discussion of candidates and issues in the 2016 election in our Facebook Group, Civil Beat Politics. Connect with others and learn how to get involved in community issues.

About the Author