How crowded will the race be to replace Daniel Akaka in Washington?

When Ed Case ran against Akaka in 2006, no less than 10 viable candidates sought Case’s 2nd Congressional District seat in the Democratic primary. They included the victor, Mazie Hirono, as well as Colleen Hanabusa, Brian Schatz, Gary Hooser and Nestor Garcia.

When Case ran in a special election in 2002 to fill the remainder of the late Patsy Mink‘s term, he bested 37 others, including Mink’s widower, John. Barely a month later, in early 2003, Case prevailed in a field of 44 that included Hanabusa and Frank Fasi to keep the seat for two more years.

But the 2012 race to fill Akaka’s seat, which had already begun before the 86-year-old senator announced Wednesday he would not seek re-election, will be an entirely different race, the likes of which Hawaii has not seen in decades.

The Democratic contenders will almost certainly include Case, and possibly Hirono, Hanabusa, Schatz and Mufi Hannemann.

On the Republican side, Linda Lingle has already said she’s thinking about a run and Charles Djou may jump in, too.

The cream of Hawaii’s political elite will be vying to join the world’s “most exclusive club,” as the U.S. Senate has been described. A national stage awaits, as does near-certain job security.

Ultimately, though, the election will come down to name recognition, track record, fundraising, powerful friends, campaign strengths and weaknesses — and luck. Civil Beat handicaps the 2012 race for the U.S. Senate.

The Republicans

Linda Lingle

The former governor has fundraising prowess, friends in the national Republican Party and a competitive drive to be in D.C. She is also currently out of office, too, making it easier to raise money and campaign.

She has run three statewide campaigns, two of them successfully. Her top aide, Lenny Klompus, left his brief stint with state Rep. Gene Ward this week to return to the private sector, suggesting he will be around to help her launch a fourth campaign.

She’s also an excellent debater and a master of talking points, and she’s difficult to throw off message. But she can also come across as robotic and thin-skinned; her sense of humor, one of her best qualities, is not always shown in public.

Lingle’s eight years in office ended on mostly sour notes: furlough Fridays, Hawaii Superferry, teachers camped out in her office and the failure of her lieutenant governor to succeed her. The passage of time may make Lingle more appealing — especially as her successor fights his own budget battles. But when she left office, the Republican Party was weaker than when she went in.

Still, Lingle is the GOP frontrunner to succeed Akaka and would be a tough opponent against whichever Democrat emerges.

Charles Djou and Duke Aiona

James “Duke” Aiona said after losing the governor’s race that the only office he is interested in is the governor’s in 2014. Circumstances could change, of course, but Aiona lost badly in 2010 to Neil Abercrombie, spent too much money early in the campaign and made several major gaffes — flu shots, Transformation Hawaii. If Lingle’s in, it’s also hard to see how Aiona would want to challenge his former boss.

Charles Djou was the only Republican Hawaii sent to Washington since the late 1980s. But his tenure was brief. He won the special election to fill Abercrombie’s congressional seat because Case and Hanabusa split the Democratic vote. When faced with just one Democratic opponent, even in a big year for Republicans nationally, he couldn’t pull off a win. It doesn’t seem likely Djou would take on Lingle in a primary.

But Djou also got a taste of the national stage, and he seems hungry. He may seek a rematch against Hanabusa or take on another Democrat should Hanabusa run for the Senate.

The Democrats

Ed Case

Case was weighing his political options even before Akaka said he’s stepping down. He is a tireless campaigner and highly ambitious.

By bowing out of the Democratic primary against Hanabusa last year, effectively sending her to Congress, Case helped to shore up support in the Democratic Party of Hawaii, which has always been wary of his rightward leanings and iconoclast status. While Case might do well in a general election, it could be a struggle for him to win a Democratic primary against a more traditional Democrat.

Case has also lost the last two races he competed in — lost badly, actually — and there are still some who resent his ill-conceived challenge to Akaka in 2006. He sometimes appears too smart for his own good, and he can be cocky.

Colleen Hanabusa

She’s only been in Congress for two months, so it would seem a bit of a stretch for her to run for the Senate next year. Her campaign skills are also a mixed bag — more often speaking like a lawyer in debates and repeating ad nauseam the “local roots” theme in all her advertising.

Her victory last November aside, Hanabusa lost her three previous races for Congress — one to Hirono and two to Case. She might be better off biding her time until Inouye leaves office.

But Hanabusa is a favorite of unions and other traditional Democrats, and House representatives becoming senators is a common pattern. Being one of 435 representative in a body dictated by the Tea Party can’t be much fun.

Mufi Hannemann

The former Honolulu mayor ran a terrible campaign for governor last year, and voters let him know it.

But Hannemann has not spent his time since the election licking his wounds. He has been a near-daily presence at the Capitol lobbying for the visitor industry and keeping his name in the public realm.

He has also launched a new website that seems designed to position him for another race. He’s smart, smooth, connected, and as ambitious as Case and Hanabusa. And like Case, he’s not currently holding elective office.

(Hannemann released a statement on Akaka’s retirement that said in part, “While some may be curious, there will be plenty of time to discuss my own personal plans in light of his announcement.”)

Hannemann, Case and Hanabusa are the Democratic front-runners … for now.

Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz

Some may argue that Hirono should be considered in the same category as her House colleague and junior, Hanabusa.

Interestingly, in her statement about Akaka’s retirement, she was the first to bring up the possibility that she might run: “As to whether I will seek the Senate seat, it is premature for me to make such a decision.” Hanabusa said this: “(He) has been a role model to me throughout my own career.

(UPDATE 3/4/2011: A spokesman for Rep. Hirono clarified late Wednesday that Hirono’s statement was in response to “numerous media requests” asking whether the congresswoman would run for Akaka’s seat next year.)

Hirono barely edged Hanabusa in 2006, and her campaign and governing style is far from dynamic. Case almost beat her in 2002 in the Democratic primary for governor, and Lingle had little difficulty in defeating her in the general election that year, though Hirono was the sitting lieutenant governor.

Like Hanabusa, Hirono might be better waiting until Inouye leaves office.

As for Schatz, he surprised many by easily winning the primary for lieutenant governor. He’s a former party chairman and knows Barack Obama, and he knows how to raise money.

But LG’s have not had much luck running for offices other than governor, and Schatz has indicated that that is a seat he’s interested in.

The Others

It’s still early and, to use a cliche, “anything can happen.” Elections have turned quickly on resignations, death and scandal, for example.

No doubt a dozen or more politicians and wannabes are already making calls and conducting private polls.

The fact that Sen. Inouye himself mentioned the names of Hanabusa, Hirono, Case, Hannemann and Schatz (he did not name any Republicans) suggests he believes the race is wide open.

Inouye even said Gov. Neil Abercrombie might be a candidate, though that seems unlikely; Abercrombie could have stayed in Washington as a Congressman but said he wanted to end his career back home in the state’s top job.

(Oddly, Inouye also floated the name of Tammy Duckworth, who hasn’t lived in Hawaii for years and who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006 — in Illinois.)

Should Hirono or Hanabusa run for Senate, another tier of candidates will likely emerge for their House seats. They may include the likes of Gary Hooser, Kirk Caldwell, Jon Riki Karamatsu, Lyla Berg, Bob Hogue and any number of past office holders currently in the political wilderness. Other possibilites include legislators like Gene Ward and Honolulu City Councilman Nestor Garcia, who previously ran for Congress.

This much is sure: Only three months after the tide-changing local elections of 2010, a tide-changing election of 2012 has just begun.

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