Across the country veteran politicians are facing serious competition generated by a tide of voter anger, even from within their own party.

Some — Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, for example — are retiring rather than face a tough re-election fight, even though U.S. House and Senate majorities hang in the balance. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, is in danger of losing his Nevada seat to a Republican this fall, while Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee for president in 2008, is being challenged in the Arizona primary.

An April 25 New York Times article reports that the GOP smells blood in the water and is targeting dozens of seats once thought to be solidly Democratic. They include the Senate seats formerly held by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Yet, in Hawaii, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye thus far faces no serious challenge in either the primary or general elections. It’s the most prominent, and consistent, illustration of Democrats’ dominance.

Inouye’s popularity at home is due to several factors, including his military service, his record of accomplishment, his deep involvement in Hawaii’s political history, and his skill at directing congressional earmarks to his district.

Inouye’s earmarks in fiscal years 2008-2010 totaled $2.7 billion, according to the nonpartisan LegiStorm. That’s about 4 percent of Hawaii’s $64 billion economy. Reid brought Nevada $1.5 billion during that period, while McCain — a strong critic of earmarks — sponsored no earmarks for Arizona.

“I am proud to sponsor earmarks that meet the needs of my constituents,” Inouye told Civil Beat. “Like every other member of this body, I believe I understand the needs of my state better than the bureaucrats in Washington D.C. Earmarks in Hawaii have created thousands of jobs, funded education, provided health care, bolstered national defense, expanded scientific research, built roads and schools and supported cultural initiatives and other programs.”

It’s little wonder that the national Cook Political Report gives Inouye a high probability of keeping his seat. That prediction is supported by local evidence.

With less than three months before the July 20 filing deadline, only three candidates have pulled papers to run for the Senate seat, and only one against Inouye in the Sept. 18 primary. All three are political unknowns: Democrat Andrew Woerner of Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawaii, Republican John Roco of Waianae on Oahu, and nonpartisan candidate Jeff Jarrett of Kamuela on Hawaii island. Another independent, Jerry “J.D.” Carter, may enter the race as well.

One reason for Inouye’s political success is his well-fed war chest (Civil Beat Publisher Pierre Omidyar has donated the maximum $2,400 to Inouye’s campaign in the past year) and extensive Rolodex. Hawaii has no wealthy challengers to step into the fray the way Mike Bloomberg did in New York City or Jon Corzine did in New Jersey.

Through Dec. 31, 2009, Inouye’s campaign reported $3.2 million cash on hand. The only other candidate listed in Federal Election Commission spending reports thus far is Woerner, who has officially filed to run but reports having zero cash on hand.

The apparent easy re-election of Inouye stands in contrast to the hotly contested May 22 special election to replace Neil Abercrombie in the 1st Congressional District seat. That race, which features no incumbent, has attracted national attention, and will do so again this fall when voters will decide who should fill the seat for the next two years.

Inouye has rarely had a tough re-election battle. In 2004 he didn’t even bother to debate his opponents, yet won the primary with 157,367 votes, or 89 percent of the total.

In the 2004 general election, Inouye received 313,620 votes, or about 73 percent of the total. His Republican opponent received 20 percent of the vote. The rest went to two independent candidates, who combined earned fewer than the number of blank votes cast. Inouye enjoyed similarly robust margins in his 1998 re-election, when he faced similarly obscure candidates.

But history suggests the venerable Inouye is not invulnerable.

In his 1992 re-election, Inouye was pitted against Wayne Nishiki, a longtime Maui County Council member, in the primary and against Rick Reed, a Republican state senator, in the general. Inouye crushed Nishiki in the primary by a 3-to-1 margin, but the general election was closer. Inouye won 208,266 votes to Reed’s 97,928 votes, or 54-26 percent, still an overwhelming margin. Green candidate Linda Martin took 13 percent of the vote and Libertarian Richard Rowland took 2 percent. Five percent of the vote was from blank votes and invalidated votes.

By contrast, in the races for the U.S. House that year, Democrats Neil Abercrombie and Patsy Mink each was re-elected with 68 percent.

The 1992 race is remembered for Reed’s attack ad using a secretly taped conversation of Inouye’s hair dresser alleging she had been sexually abused by the senator, a claim he denied as unfounded. The ad made headlines nationally, with some observing that the accusations prompted little action in Hawaii such as calls for Inouye’s resignation or an investigation into the matter. A New York Times article attributed the relative silence to the one-party dominance of Democrats in the state.

Inouye, who would be 92 by the time he finishes another term, has seen others of his rank and age fall. Ted Stevens of Alaska, a Republican and dear friend of Inouye, was the longest-serving living Republican senator1 in 2008, when he narrowly lost re-election to a Democrat. So he’s well aware of the risks of political life.

But in Inouye’s case, for a host of reasons, it appears that the threshold to unseat him is so high that he may be able to hold his office for as long as he wants.

  1. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Stevens was the longest-serving senator in U.S. history.

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