UPDATED 5/31/11 9:14 a.m.

The race to fill the vacancy created by U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka in 2012 is shaping up to be the most competitive in years.

First Ed Case declared, then Mazie Hirono and perennial candidate John Carroll.

Linda Lingle says she’ll decide by late August, while Colleen Hanabusa hasn’t ruled it out.

No word yet from Mufi Hannemann and Brian Schatz. If Lingle takes a pass, expect to hear from Charles Djou or James “Duke” Aiona. Other pols are said to be mulling over a run as well.

Why all the fuss from Democrats, Republicans and third-party candidates? Because there is no incumbent in the race.

Indeed, the last time Hawaii had an open Senate seat was in 1976 — 35 years ago. Lt. Gov. Schatz was just 4 years old.

Only Five Hawaii Senators

In 1976, Democrat Spark Matsunaga defeated Republican William Quinn to win the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Hiram Fong, who retired.

In addition to Akaka, Matsunaga and Fong, only two other men have served as Hawaii senators since statehood. The most well known is Daniel K. Inouye, who was elected in 1962 to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Democrat Oren Long, who had taken office in 1959.

The 2012 Senate race is attracting so much attention because an open race is so rare.

There are only 100 senators, of course. Unlike their mainland counterparts, however, Hawaii senators have the kind of job security most politicians can only dream of: None has ever lost a Senate race.

Landslide Victories

Even contested Senate races have been rare, and they usually haven’t been close.

The most recent example was Ed Case’s primary challenge against Akaka in 2006. He ended up losing to the venerated incumbent by nearly 10 percentage points.

Akaka defeated Republican Pat Saiki by the same margin in 1990, two years after Akaka had been sworn in to the position following the death of Matsugana.

There is one other distinction about Hawaii Senate races — one that may bode especially well for Mazie Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa.

Democrats Matsunaga, Akaka and Inouye were all serving in the U.S. House of Representatives when they were elevated to the Senate.

Democrat Oren Long1, however, had served only a two-year stint (1951-1953) as territorial governor — an appointed position. To this day he is the only Hawaii senator not to have Asian ancestry.

Republican Hiram Fong, meanwhile, served in the Hawaii Territorial House of Representatives, including as speaker from 1948 to 1954 — the year that Hawaii’s Democrats began their nearly uninterrupted streak of one-party dominance in Hawaii politics.

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