WASHINGTON — Brian Schatz will be back on the ballot in 2022 and he’s bringing with him buckets of cash.
Hawai’s senior U.S. senator had more than $3.3 million in the bank at the end of March, according to his latest campaign spending reports, and with no clear opponent from either party it looks like he won’t have to spend much of it to snag another six years in the Senate.
The Democratic Party bench is relatively thin in the Aloha State and the race with the most intrigue — at least for now — involves the battle to replace Gov. David Ige, who is term limited.
“This race is going to be a real snooze fest,” said Colin Moore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii and director of the school’s Public Policy Center. “I think Brian Schatz is going to be with us for a very long while.”
Schatz keeps it simple when summarizing why Hawaii voters should vote to keep him working for them in Washington.
“I work really hard, I deliver and I care,” he said.
Schatz has staked out a good position for himself in congressional political circles since he was appointed in December 2012 by then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie to replace U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who died in office. Prior to the appointment, Schatz was the state’s lieutenant governor.
Schatz went on to beat then-U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in a 2014 special election by a margin of only 1,782 votes. Hanabusa was a fellow Democrat who Inouye had supposedly handpicked as his chosen successor on his deathbed.
Schatz ran again in the regular election in 2016 with little opposition and won by a wide margin.
Since then, he’s focused on building his political resume, both as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he can influence the flow of federal dollars back to the islands, and as the Democratic Caucus’ chief deputy whip, which has given him a larger voice in national politics.
After Democrats gained control of the Senate last year, he was named chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, a position once held by his predecessor as well as the late-U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who was the first Native Hawaiian to serve in Congress since statehood.
In recent years, Schatz has become increasingly adept at securing federal dollars for Hawaii, whether working deals to lock in more conservation funding for Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument or carving out an extra $70 million for Honolulu’s troubled rail project.
Schatz’s main concern of late has been the coronavirus pandemic, he said, and figuring out how best to help his home state, which now boasts the highest unemployment rate in the country.
“The COVID crisis has been the most difficult period for Hawaii in many, many decades, and I’ve never worked harder to try to make sure that we navigate our way through this together,” Schatz said. “I’ve tried to be as helpful as possible to people from all walks of life with federal funding, and I’ve tried to be as fair and as humane and compassionate in policymaking as I can.”
Specifically, he highlighted the tens of millions of dollars that was set aside in the most recent coronavirus relief bill for Native Hawaiian housing, health care and education.
John Hart, who’s the chairman of the communication department at Hawaii Pacific University and longtime observer of state politics, said Schatz doesn’t have to sell himself too hard.
Like UH’s Moore, Hart doesn’t expect Schatz to draw out a credible challenger in either the Democratic primary or from the flailing GOP, which has struggled for decades to find political parity in deep blue Hawaii.
“You can’t have a much more locked in seat than this one,” Hart said. “He just has to remember what garage the yard signs are in and to make sure he files the paperwork on time.”
One of the more striking qualities of Schatz’s ascendance, Hart said, is that unlike many of his Senate colleagues, he’s expressed little interest in running for president.
Schatz has put in the work to be appointed to committees that matter for Hawaii, Hart said, and he’s taken on the issues that voters on the islands seem to care about, such as climate change.
“I think he wants to be like Dan Inouye,” Hart said. “That’s an excellent role for him to assume and a role that I think he’s quite good at. It’s also a role that the people in Hawaii are rewarding him for.”
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