Choice to replace Inouye may have long-term impact

FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2012 file photo, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye speaks at the Japanese Cultural Center in Honolulu. Inouye, a decorated World War II veteran, is under observation at a Washington-area hospital so that doctors can monitor his oxygen intake. Inouye, who is 88, is the longest serving Senator. He's completing his 50th year in the chamber. He said Monday, Dec. 10, in a statement, that he is, quote, "for the most part, okay." (AP Photo/Marco Garcia, File)
Marco Garcia

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

From 1959 -- the year Hawaii achieved statehood -- until this week, Daniel Inouye represented the state in Washington as its first member of Congress and then as the nation's longest-serving senator.

With Inouye's death on Monday at the age of 88, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie must soon appoint a successor -- a decision that could be among the most consequential in the state's political history.

Due in part to the nature of the electorate in the nation's 50th state, whoever replaces the nine-term senator may well end up holding that seat for another multi-decade tenure.

"Hawaii is a solid-blue state, and Hawaii loves incumbents," said political analyst and Hawaii Pacific University professor John Hart. "So unless he appoints someone who's clearly a caretaker, we're electing our next senator-for-life in this process."

According to procedures that were established by a state law passed in 2007, the Hawaii Democratic Party has 21 days to provide Abercrombie with three names for consideration to fill the vacated seat.

In 2014, a special election will be held to determine who serves what would have been the final two years of Inouye's term.

The process for selecting a successor is likely to be conducted quickly, since Democrats will be eager for his replacement to be seated when the new Congress convenes in January.

A major consideration for Abercrombie will be the "last wish" letter that Inouye drafted to the first-term Democratic governor just before his death. In it, Inouye asked that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who was first elected to Congress in 2010 after a 12-year stint in the Hawaii state Senate, take his place.

Even if Inouye had not weighed in on the matter, Hanabusa (pictured) likely would have been the front-runner to fill the vacancy, and the appointment of anyone else would come as a surprise to many close observers of Hawaii politics.

"The thing that would raise the least eyebrows and cause the least problems is the Hanabusa pick," Hart said.

If appointed, Hanabusa, 61, would join incoming Sen. Mazie Hirono in the state's Senate delegation. Last month, Hirono, 65, easily defeated former Gov. Linda Lingle in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka.

A potential complication to appointing Hanabusa, however, would be the subsequent vacancy of her House seat in Hawaii's 1st Congressional District, which would have to be filled by a special election.

The district -- which encompasses the urban area in and around Honolulu -- is the less solidly Democratic of the state's two districts and would be vulnerable to a GOP takeover if a high-profile Republican such as Lingle or former Rep. Charles Djou were to run.

Current Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz is among the other names that state Democrats likely will consider recommending for Inouye's seat. Among other, less apparent, possibilities is former Democratic Congressman Ed Case; he has a Washington resume but is unlikely to be considered seriously, according to Hawaii sources, because his relationship with Inouye and the state party establishment has been tumultuous.

In the event that Abercrombie decides to appoint a so-called caretaker to serve for the next two years, he might consider two former governors: Ben Cayetano and John Waihe'e (if their names are submitted).

Asked what factors the governor will consider in making his selection, Abercrombie communications director Louise Kim McCoy declined to offer any hints.

"Yesterday -- and, quite frankly, even today -- the governor has been focusing on wanting to pay respects to Sen. Inouye and also respecting the wishes of the family," McCoy said.

After the news of the longtime lawmaker's death was reported Monday, Abercrombie used a press conference that had been scheduled to discuss his budget plan to deliver remarks on the passing of the decorated World War II veteran, who was one of the last living icons of the Senate.

"He left us with a legacy of honor and service to the people of Hawaii, to the people of this nation, without parallel," Abercrombie said. "Our responsibility is to not just carry on but carry through on his total devotion and commitment to Hawaii and its values."

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.