Incumbent U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz won a tense Democratic primary election in Hawaii, proving that he is no longer just a senator who was appointed to his seat — he has captured the confidence of Hawaii voters.
The dramatic race to finish the term of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye was tinged with emotional residue from the past. Schatz was challenged by U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who at one point said that he wasn't a true incumbent because he had been appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie after Inouye's dying wish that Hanabusa replace him.
Now, after an election that stretched over nearly a week because Tropical Storm Iselle knocked out power and closed polling stations, Schatz has carried his slim election-night lead to a victory.
"This was obviously an extremely hard-fought race. But we're gratified that the voters heard our message and recognized that I've been working hard for the people of Hawaii," Schatz said in an interview with The Associated Press late Friday.
Schatz edged out Hanabusa, capturing 48.5 percent of the vote, compared with Hanabusa's 47.8 percent.
Schatz had outspent Hanabusa by $1 million during his campaign, and his ads — which emphasized his endorsement by President Barack Obama — dominated TV and radio.
The election was held Friday for two rural precincts on Hawaii's Big Island that were closed on election day because of damage from Iselle. In the days leading up to Friday's makeup primary, Hanabusa tried to delay the election to give area residents more time to recover from the storm, but she lost a court challenge.
In an interview with reporters late Friday, Hanabusa thanked her supporters for their help conducting a campaign with a "major money deficit."
"That is one of the most humbling and phenomenal things about elections, it's the relationships that we make, the relationships that we earn," she said. "And I just want to say 'Mahalo' to everyone who has given their heart and soul to this election."
Iselle threw an unexpected twist to an already unusual campaign battle, turning the spotlight on Puna, an often neglected part of the state that was in the unlikely position of deciding the likely winner of the U.S. Senate race. Schatz will face Republican candidate Cam Cavasso in November, but Schatz is expected to cruise to victory in the heavily Democratic state.
With hundreds of downed trees and power lines sending the region into chaos, thousands of voters couldn't get to the polls. Both candidates got to work handing out food, water and ice to storm victims and giving the decisive voters a chance to judge them up close.
Some voters preferred Schatz's way of handling the situation.
"He looked like a Puna boy with his Levis and baseball cap, and he was just working hard passing out supplies," said Sharon Turner, owner of Island Edges Beads in Hilo. "Then when I saw Hanabusa, she was passing out chili. But all the people around her had their campaign hats on."
Other voters lamented that Friday's makeup primary came too soon after Iselle, and they appreciated Hanabusa's efforts to delay voting. Some had difficulty getting to polling places because of downed trees that had yet to be removed after the storm. There was a sense of confusion at the polling station on Friday, with some voters saddened because they thought they could vote, but then were turned away because they didn't live in the precincts that were allowed to vote on Friday.
"They made a big deal that 'Yay, Puna has a say,' but the reality is people are in an absolute state of crisis," said Christina Bryan, 41, a teacher who lives in an area where the polls were open during the Aug. 9 primary but her road was blocked, preventing her from voting. Even so, she said Hanabusa's legal challenge "felt a little phony."
Turnout in the two precincts was down nearly one-third compared with the 2012 primary, with about 3,000 people casting ballots during early voting and on Friday.
Schatz said there's no doubt that that the storm impacted voter turnout, but "we decided early on that we're the players on the field, not the referees, so we were prepared to compete in the election whenever and however it was conducted."
Despite the drama of Iselle, many voters in the Big Island's Puna region still had the drama of Inouye's dying wish on their minds.
Aina Campbell, a retired caregiver, said she would have voted for Hanabusa but couldn't get to the polls on election day.
"For the governor who lost to ignore the request on a dying man's bed — I don't believe Schatz earned the position yet, and Hanabusa has," Campbell said.
But in some cases, sentiments of the past didn't work in Hanabusa's favor.
"First you're invoking Inouye's name, now you're invoking Iselle,"said Leonard Feliciano, 60, who voted for Schatz on Friday. "Don't play on our hearts. We need to move on."
Cathy Bussewitz can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cbussewitz
Associated Press Writers Oskar Garcia and Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu and Karin Stanton and Marco Garcia in Pahoa contributed to this report.