HILO, Hawaii (AP) — 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 the state'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, affecting some 8,000 registered voters, who would be able to cast their ballots on a new voting day to be held Friday, the Office of Elections said Monday. The emotional Democratic contest between U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa 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.
Leilani Bronson-Crelly, a Puna region resident and small-business owner running for the state House of Representatives, said it's "amazing" that the two precincts could determine the race. But she had advice for the candidates.
"It's so insensitive to try to continue a huge campaign, as it were, calling people that do not have water or electricity, or basic needs that haven't been met," she said. "Don't knock on the door unless you've got a bucket of water or a bag of ice."
Both Schatz and Hanabusa visited the region, pledging to help with cleanup 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 got an assessment of the damage from a helicopter Monday while her campaign consulted with attorneys, said Peter Boylan, her campaign spokesman.
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 faces an uphill climb, given Schatz's lead of 1,635 votes. If all 8,255 registered voters in the area cast ballots and Hanabusa garnered 60 percent of the vote, she would only beat Schatz by 15 votes.
"Unless Hanabusa can get more people to vote than traditionally voted, it's an extreme uphill battle for her," said Joy San Buenaventura, an attorney and Democratic precinct president in one of the closed Puna precincts. The Democratic presidents of the two polls are hoping to hold another forum for the candidates.
The precincts voted more liberal than the rest of the state in the 2012 elections. San Buenaventura described the districts as diverse, with seniors, commuters and working class residents.
There are few policy differences between Schatz and Hanabusa, and the campaign centered largely around Inouye's dying wish that Hanabusa replace him. Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who appointed Schatz instead, lost to another fellow Democrat Saturday, and some say his refusal to honor Inouye's wish was partly to blame.
On the remote, rocky shores of the Puna region, surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes and lush, green landscape, residents were not thinking about the Senate race yet. They were more concerned about how to keep food in their fridge from spoiling, said Eileen O'Hara, president of the Hawaiian Shores Community Association.
With power outages limiting Internet access and smartphone battery lives, O'Hara and other voters found out their polling place was closed when they showed up to vote and saw a hand-written sign. Now, O'Hara feels the election can't be considered valid because the results were released before everyone got to vote.
Even so, "people don't really care at this point," she said. "My neighbor lost a roof, many houses did. There are still streets blocked."
Schatz recognizes the challenge of campaigning in the rugged volcanic region.
"The people of Puna are not in a position to think about elections," he said.
Hanabusa said Friday's voting will give an unusual voice to a remote section of Hawaii.
"The neighbor islands always feel that we are Honolulu-centric, so to get to the point that we're in where they get to make the final call, it must make them feel very good," she said.
Associated Press Writer Juliet Williams contributed to this report in Honolulu.