Colleen Hanabusa won two elections Tuesday to send her back to Washington, D.C., where she will retake a seat that belonged to her just two years ago.
Hanabusa easily beat out nine other candidates in a special election to serve out the term of the late U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, who died in July. Hanabusa took in enough votes to beat out her next closest opponent, Republican Shirlene Ostrov, by a 3-to-1 margin.
Hanabusa also prevailed in her general election contest, which decided who would represent Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, which covers urban Oahu, for the next two years. She again blew out Ostrov, her next closest opponent, taking an even larger share of the votes than she did in the special election.
Hanabusa is expected to fly back to Washington next week to be sworn in, but she won’t be the only familiar face headed there from Hawaii. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard both easily won their races for re-election in landslide fashion.
Schatz, who was seeking his first full six-year term, won by an even wider margin than Hanabusa did over his Republican challenger, John Carroll. Gabbard, who was chasing her third consecutive term, similarly crushed her Republican opponent, Angela Aulani Kaaihue.
Despite the personal victories for Hanabusa, Schatz, Gabbard and Hawaii’s Democratic Party, there was a somber mood as the results rolled in.
Hanabusa said there’s no way to escape the bittersweet taste of her presumed return to Congress. Takai’s death still looms large over her candidacy since it would not have happened but for the congressman’s passing.
“The first thing we have to realize is that this is an election that came about because of a very unfortunate situation, and that of course is Mark Takai,” Hanabusa said at her campaign celebration in Kakaako Agora. “I feel that we can’t ever lose sight of that. This is a seat that he really coveted and wanted to serve. He got to have that part of that dream fulfilled.”
But Hanabusa also acknowledged that it was hard to enjoy Tuesday’s election results because of the resounding uncertainty that comes with a looming Donald Trump presidency.
“The whole thing is being overshadowed right now by the presidential election,” Hanabusa said, noting that she’s been a Hillary Clinton supporter since 2008 when she mounted an unsuccessful primary campaign against Barack Obama, who was then a U.S. senator. “I’m just wondering what it means, and more importantly what it means for Hawaii.”
Schatz, too, was crestfallen about the presidential election. The senator had sharp words for Trump in May after he became the Republican presidential nominee, and was often outspoken about the candidate’s remarks praising Japanese internment and banning Filipino immigrants from entering the country.
“It’s fair to say that what happened tonight is kind of beyond a lot of our imaginations, it is shocking,” Schatz said while at a campaign event for Democrats at the Japanese Cultural Center in Honolulu. “What you can have is solace in that the Democratic Party of Hawaii is strong, that our values are intact, that we continue to be a shining light where we understand that diversity is a strength and not a weakness, that kindness and tolerance are to be cultivated, that government is a force for good.”
Gabbard was expected to attend the event at the Japanese Cultural Center along with dozens of other Hawaii politicians and Democratic Party faithful. But the congresswoman never showed despite the fact that top party officials announced early in the evening that she would be speaking to the audience.
There wasn’t much drama in the congressional campaigns. Even the August primaries were relatively humdrum affairs with few serious Democratic challengers to Schatz, Gabbard or Hanabusa. All three candidates won their respective primaries by landslide margins.
It wasn’t the first time a dying statesman had picked Hanabusa to be his successor.
In 2012, then-U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye penned a deathbed letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie asking him to appoint Hanabusa to his seat when he passed away. Hanabusa was a congresswoman at the time, and many supported Inouye’s request.
But Abercrombie had other plans. He famously ignored Inouye’s dying wish and selected his lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz, to serve in the Senate until a special election could be held in 2014. Abercrombie’s decision set the stage for a bitter primary fight between Schatz and Hanabusa in which the sitting senator edged the former congresswoman by 1,782 votes, less than 1 percent of all ballots cast.
While the loss meant Hanabusa was out of politics, she wasn’t long out of the limelight. In June 2015, Hanabusa was appointed to the board of directors of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which is the semi-autonomous agency overseeing construction of the city’s 20-mile commuter rail line, which is woefully over-budget and behind schedule.
Hanabusa quickly rose to chairwoman of the board, and is largely credited with changing HART’s culture to be more open about the many problems facing the project. Honolulu’s rail line was supposed to cost $5.2 billion and be completed by 2019. The latest estimate pegs that figure at $8.6 billion with a completion date of December 2025.
There were fewer storylines in the races for U.S. Senate and Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. Schatz and Gabbard were by far the clear favorites to win their respective races, both in the primary and general elections. Like Hanabusa, neither candidate drew a significant challenge from within their own party or from the Republican side of the ticket.
The dearth of competition meant Schatz and Gabbard have been able to keep their campaign coffers full of donor cash rather than spending it on fending off competitors. Both candidates still have more than $2 million left in the bank, according to Federal Election Commission records.
FEC reports show that Schatz sent about $500,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in an attempt to get as many like-minded colleagues in office as possible. The hope for Schatz is that his largesse would pay off with a prime subcommittee appointment if the Democrats retake control of the Senate.
Gabbard, on the other hand, has been building her war chest with donations big and small. Some have been wondering if she’s preparing for a run against U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono in 2018.
The congresswoman has a loyal base in her district, which includes rural Oahu and the neighbor islands. Gabbard has also been boosting her national profile by making regular appearances on CNN and Fox News, the latter a conservative news outlet that has taken a shine to the congresswoman.
Gabbard made waves when she quit her post as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and threw her support behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. The move didn’t sit well with Hillary Clinton’s people, a fact that was highlighted in emails released by WikiLeaks last month.
The only real sideshow in this year’s congressional races involved Angela Aulani Kaaihue, who is both Gabbard’s Republican challenger for the 2nd Congressional District and a Democratic candidate in the special election to complete Takai’s term in CD1.
Kaaihue made headlines when she issued numerous racist and religiously bigoted statements about Gabbard, who is Hindu, and Hanabusa, who is Buddhist. Kaaihue also took shots at Hawaii Gov. David Ige and what she described as the “Devil Democratic State.”
Kaaihue’s candidacy was an embarrassment for the state Republican Party, which issued a public statement denouncing her remarks. The state Democratic Party had similar problems with Kaaihue, but was unsuccessful in removing her name from the special election ballot.
Civil Beat reporter Nathan Eagle contributed to this report.