HILO, Hawaii – Robert Gavel was too busy Monday helping a crew repair a home savaged by Tropical Storm Iselle to consider that his hard-hit community on Hawaii’s Big Island would likely decide who would become Hawaii’s next U.S. senator.
The remote, rural Puna region was often neglected by political circles until now, but Gavel was thinking about the home he owns: A fallen tree ripped off its roof, left the living room exposed and damaged a flat-screen TV, which dangled precariously.
The elections haven’t been on my mind at all, said Gavel, who rents the property to a family. He’s just glad they made it out safely.
Two voting precincts in the region hardest hit by Iselle were closed during Saturday’s primary, and about 8,000 people were asked to vote by mail for either U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz or U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in an emotional Democratic race that is still too close to call.
A Democrat is expected to end up in the seat either way, so the decision won’t likely change the balance of power in the Senate. But some argue it is giving a small number of voters in a remote part of Hawaii an inordinate amount of power. Meanwhile, voters in Puna, a community south of Hilo, say they have other priorities – like figuring out how to bathe.
These two closed polls could determine the outcome of the Senate race, and that’s just amazing, said Leilani Bronson-Crelly, a resident of the Puna region and small-business owner who was running for the state House of Representatives.
Both Schatz and Hanabusa planned to be in the region, pledging to help with the cleanup effort and potentially picking up a few votes. Schatz said he was working with civil defense to immediately bring federal recovery resources to the Big Island.
Hanabusa was in a helicopter getting an aerial assessment of the damage Monday while her campaign consulted with attorneys, said Peter Boylan, her campaign spokesman.
We are currently reviewing all legal options at this time because of this too-close-to-call outcome, Boylan said.
The candidates are competing to permanently replace beloved political icon Sen. Daniel Inouye, who died in 2012. Schatz was appointed as his replacement, and Saturday’s vote was the first election to determine who would hold the seat.
Hanabusa has an uphill climb, given Schatz’s lead of 1,635 votes. If all 8,255 registered voters cast ballots and Hanabusa garnered 60 percent of the vote, she would beat Schatz by only 15 votes.