WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Monday threw his support to Sen. Brian Schatz over Colleen Hanabusa in Hawaii's Senate race, stepping into a primary that has been divisive for voters in the state where Obama was born.
Obama's backing could give a critical boost to Schatz in Hawaii, where Obama remains more popular than in most other parts of the U.S. Seven in 10 Hawaii voters chose Obama in 2012. Polls this year show that Schatz and Hanabusa are in a competitive race.
"Sen. Schatz is protecting Hawaii's values and fighting every day on behalf of middle-class families," Obama said in a statement. "There is no question that Senator Schatz is the right choice to continue delivering for Hawaii."
Appointed in 2012 after longtime Sen. Daniel Inouye died in office, Schatz is running in a special election to fill the remainder of Inouye's term, which expires in 2016. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Schatz over Hanabusa, both Democrats, despite Inouye's preference that Hanabusa replace him.
The race has become a point of division for Democrats both in Hawaii and at the national level. The state leans heavily Democratic, and the winner of the August primary is likely to win the general election. Hanabusa, who like Inouye is Japanese-American, has attracted many of his dedicated supporters, while many younger voters have been attracted to Schatz's progressive message.
In Washington, much of the party establishment, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has lined up behind Schatz, while Hanabusa has secured backing from Emily's List, a PAC that assists female Democrats who support abortion rights. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also endorsed Schatz on Monday.
"I endorse him wholeheartedly and support President Obama's decision to do the same," Reid said in a statement. "Brian has proven himself a champion for working families in Hawaii."
Hanabusa campaign spokesman Peter Boylan said in a statement that Hanabusa would continue to listen to the concerns of people in Hawaii, who will decide the election.
"The people of Hawaii are looking forward to their first opportunity to vote for their next U.S. senator, and we believe they trust Colleen to continue fighting for them in the U.S. Senate," Boylan said.
Although the president is aggressively raising money for Democratic groups to use for the general elections in November, he's generally avoided intervening in primaries. In December, Obama did endorse Abercrombie in a re-election bid for governor over a primary opponent, state Sen. David Ige.
Schatz was an early backer of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, while Hanabusa and Inouye were allied with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Schatz has been actively involved in Hawaii's statewide bid to lure Obama's presidential library to Hawaii, where the president vacations with his family every year.
"I am proud to be one of the president's most steadfast allies in the U.S. Senate," Schatz said of the endorsement, which was first reported by The Huffington Post.
During Hanabusa's 2010 and 2012 House races, Obama recorded ads praising her values and saying that Hawaii needs her in Congress.