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Rare Hawaii Senate contest kicks off with Democratic primary

August 11, 2012|By Kim Geiger

Two well-known Hawaii Democrats will square off Saturday in a race to decide who will defend the seat long held by retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka.

The choice is between Rep. Mazie Hirono and former Rep. Ed Case. The winner will face former two-term Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican with the rare ability to win statewide office in this bluest of blue states.

Regardless of which Democrat emerges as the nominee, Akaka’s retirement has set the stage for a once-in-a-generation contest. Hawaii voters typically hold onto incumbents -- the state has never voted a sitting senator out of office.

Republicans rejoiced last year when Lingle, a moderate Republican who beat out Hirono in 2002 to become governor, said she would make a run for the seat.  Lingle’s candidacy gives the GOP a rare opportunity to swipe a reliably Democratic seat, which could help tip the balance of power in the Senate and embarrass President Obama on his home turf. 

The state ranks as the country’s most Democratic – tied with Rhode Island -- according to a recent Gallup analysis.

“We’re to the Democrats like Utah is to the Republicans,” said Neal Milner, a retired political science professor at the University of Hawaii.

For Democrats, the question on Saturday is whether to choose Hirono, a well-known Democrat who has held elected office since the 1980s, or Case, a Blue Dog Democrat who angered the party establishment in 2006 when he abandoned his House seat to challenge Akaka in the Democratic Senate primary.

If money is any indication, Hirono clearly has the upper hand: She’s raised $3.4 million and spent $2 million through late July, while Case has raised just $781,471 and spent $615,795.

Hirono also shocked – and amused – observers when she won the support of her Republican colleague from Alaska, Rep. Don Young.  In a rare display of bipartisan affection, the two filmed a quirky ad in which Young touted Hirono as someone “who doesn’t just talk about bipartisanship but actually knows how to work with both Republicans and Democrats to get things done.”

The race also has the potential to add anecdotal evidence to a long-standing debate among politicos over the accuracy of robopolls vs. surveys taken by live phone interviews.  Robopolls are generally considered less accurate than those that use live interviews, and the polling leading up to the Hawaii contest shows alarmingly disparate results between the two methods.

A number of robopolls conducted by the news organization Honolulu Civil Beat have found Case either leading or tied with Hirono. The most recent gives Case a slight edge, 47% to Hirono’s 46%. (For poll enthusiasts, Honolulu Civil Beat has a defense of its methodology here.)

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which uses live interviews, has conducted two polls this year that found Hirono with a double-digit lead. The most recent, taken in late July, has Hirono with 55% to Case’s 37%.

One area in which both polls seem to agree is that either of the Democratic candidates will enter the general election with an edge over Lingle. Honolulu Civil Beat’s robopoll, in June,  gave Case a 16-percentage-point lead and Hirono a 5-point lead in a hypothetical match-up with the Republican. The Star-Advertiser, in late July, found Hirono with a 19-point lead over Lingle and Case with an 18-point lead.

And in this presidential election year, there’s another name on the ballot that could do more damage to Lingle’s candidacy: Obama, Hawaii’s native son. Because most Hawaii voters will back the president, Lingle’s task will be to convince enough people to split their ticket by supporting her.

“Any Republican on the mainland who doesn’t beat up Obama is not doing their job,” Milner said. “[Lingle] can’t be as openly critical about him, because she has to appeal to voters who are likely to vote for him.”

Still, Lingle will enter the race with a clear financial edge – she had $2 million cash on hand at the end of July, compared with Hirono’s $1.6 million and Case’s paltry $166,624. Plus, she’s likely to get a boost from the outside groups that have amassed millions for their efforts to control Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already spent $250,000 on Lingle’s behalf.

Lingle, for her part, has spent the quiet primary season launching a 24-hour cable network dedicated exclusively to promoting her candidacy. Hawaii residents who channel surf between Fox News and CNN Headline News now encounter LL12, a channel that delivers constant Lingle-related programming, a first of its kind.

The channel has observers chuckling, even if it’s not clear whether it will be worth the expense.

“She’s got a lot of money. There isn’t much going on for her in the primary, so why not see what happens?” Milner said.

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