Hawaii’s Progressive Tea Party

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 11 2014 8:56 AM

Hawaii’s Progressive Tea Party

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Brian Schatz, leader of the, um, Blue Hawaii Party?

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Few journalists were wise enough to fly west and cover the Hawaii primaries; those who did found two of the year's great election stories. The lede is that Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a personal friend of the Obama family and a fixture in the state's politics for decades, lost renomination by a landslide, as polls showed him losing in a rematch to the state's former Republican lieutenant governor.

But the other story, the other race, was less definitive. One of Abercrombie's most unpopular actions in office was appointing his own LG, Brian Schatz, to fill the seat of the late Daniel Inouye. It bloomed into a full-on controversy when it became known that Inouye had personally asked for Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to take the seat; Abercrombie had denied a dying man his final wish.

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And yet, Schatz may have defeated Hanabusa. The current count is 113,800 votes for Schatz and 112,165 for Hanabusa, with a spoiler picking up more than enough votes to change the margin. Polls were all over the place (FiveThirtyEight has been especialy amusing in its effort to analyze ... something, given the lack of data), but it does appear that Schatz succeeded in establishing himself as a down-the-line progressive, worthy of holding the seat against a congresswoman who wasn't as bold.

Examples? Schatz came out early on climate change legislation, any climate change legislation; he joined the "talkathon" to raise awareness of Democratic bills, and said that climate change "deniers" needed to be ridiculed out of the debate, "run out of town rhetorically." And Schatz was one of the first people to sign on to a progressive plan to raise Social Security payments, adjusting COLA upward, co-sponsored by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.

To see how that issue plays in a Democratic party, check out the ad Progressive Change Campaign Committee drew up for social media. Hanabusa had voted for one of the House's budget compromises—therefore, she had voted to "cut Social Security." Schatz supported an alternative that had no chance of passing the Senate, but he'd supported it, and that indicated that a 41-year-old senator who voted with the left might be better for the job than a 63-year-old pol who was forced into compromises. If Schatz holds on, he'll have had the advantages of incumbency, but he'll also represent a strategic lefty victory of the sort the Tea Party has grown used to winning.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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