Schatz vs. Hanabusa: Why is Hawaii’s U.S. Senate Race So Special?

The Hawaii U.S. Senate race is more special than you might think.
Brian Schatz, Colleen Hanabusa, Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye.
Photo: Courtesy Colleen Hanabusa


Most folks in Hawaii who pay attention to politics know that U.S. Senator Brian Schatz was appointed to replace U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye after Hawaii’s senior senator died in December 2012.

It’s also fairly well-known that Inouye had wanted U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to be his successor, but Gov. Neil Abercrombie had the final decision and appointed his then-Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz instead of the congresswoman.

Many voters, myself included, either didn’t know or had forgotten that this 2014 primary showdown between Schatz and Hanabusa isn’t a regular election, but rather a special election to fill out the remainder of Inouye’s term, which would have ended two-years from now on Jan. 3, 2017.

Hawaii is similar to most states in that it doesn’t require a special election immediately following a U.S. Senator’s death, instead appointing a replacement until the next regular election. In this case, Schatz was appointed in 2012 and this is the first regularly scheduled election since then.

So while a U.S. Senate term is six years, whoever wins Inouye’s former seat in November’s general election will only serve two years before having to run again in 2016 for a full term.

State Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla explained that almost all of the state’s vacancies are handled this way.

One exception is the U.S. House, which might be part of the reason there’s some confusion about finishing Inouye’s term. The U.S. Constitution requires a special election be held after the vacancy of a U.S. House seat.

When U.S. Congresswoman Patsy Mink died in September prior to the 2002 election, two special elections were required — one to fill out the few weeks remaining in her term until the general election, then a second because her death came too late to remove her name from the general election ballot and she was elected posthumously.

In 2010, when then-U.S. Rep. Abercrombie resigned his seat to run for Hawaii governor, former U.S. Rep Charles Djou won the special election in late May to fill out the final months of Abercrombie’s term. Djou was defeated in the November general election.

Bottom line: Expect another heated battle for Inouye’s former seat in 2016.