One year from this week, Ed Case will either be Hawaii Democrats’ nominee for the U.S. Senate or, quite possibly, at the end of his political career.

Sure, anything can happen, and Case, who turns 59 next month, is the Energizer Bunny of Hawaii politics.

But, if Case should lose the Aug. 11, 2012, primary to U.S. Rep Mazie Hirono or another Democrat, he will have lost three major races in a row; the other two were against Charles Djou and Colleen Hanabusa in May 2010 and against Sen. Daniel Akaka in 2006.

Those races weren’t close, and the three-time loser label could stick.

On the other hand, if he gets past the primary, Case has a heck of a shot at winning the general, even against a strong Republican nominee like former Gov. Linda Lingle, who’s positioned to carry the GOP mantle. Barack Obama’s approval rating may be at its lowest ever — including locally — but the bluest of states is sure to vote again for its favorite son.

That’s why Case’s sights are set squarely on Hirono.

“At the end of the day, I think Hirono basically stands for how things are,” Case told Civil Beat Sunday just after opening his campaign headquarters. “I stand for how things should be.”

Blue Dog Democrat

Case’s biggest hurdle for a return trip to Washington is the Democratic primary.

His best hope may be that the field includes several candidates that would split the traditional party vote, as was the case when Case and Hanabusa sent Republican Charles Djou to Congress in the May 2010 special election.

If Hanabusa runs, she and Hirono could compete for the same core of progressives, labor and women. Other candidates could still emerge.

Case is trailing both Hirono and Hanabusa in fundraising — badly. He’s already got the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on his back over polling numbers that Case says show Hirono losing to Lingle.

Yet, Case has his core constituency, too, a diverse group that took time on a Sunday morning to celebrate the opening of his campaign headquarters. His team includes political veterans like Crystal Rose, Lloyd Nekoba, Tony Gill and Ed Hasegawa.

His HQ is the Ward Warehouse space that was occupied by Brian Schatz in his successful run for lieutenant governor, and is a stone’s throw from Neil Abercrombie‘s former campaign headquarters. Dante Carpenter and the Democratic Party of Hawaii are neighbors.

Case may also have some goodwill to cash in on. His magnanimous decision to avoid a primary fight last year and ensure Hanabusa’s nomination effectively ended Djou’s short stint in Washington.

“It’s the right time for Ed,” says Honolulu Council member Nestor Garcia, who was on hand for the HQ opening and has been a supporter of Case’s since both men entered politics some two decades ago. “He’s a Blue Dog Democrat, just like me — fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Have you seen the disapproval members for Congress? He’s hit the sweet spot. It’s time for someone different who is not afraid to tell it like it is.”

Other supporters agree, as seen in this comment overheard at the HQ opening: “You look at the field and you tell me who has the best chance of getting elected. Ed has always come back.”

A Matter of National Leadership

Case’s voice on Sunday was hoarse because of a cold. But he was able to share with supporters his view that the 2012 Senate race would determine not only Hawaii’s leadership for the next generation but also national leadership.

“We have been served well by an entire generation,” Case said, but, with Akaka’s retirement, “that team is coming to an end. … Who we pick next is crucial.”

That’s much the same argument Case made, unsuccessfully, five years ago. But that was … well, five years ago.

Case mentioned the name of U.S. Daniel K. Inouye several times in his talk Sunday, always respectfully. He said he shared the senior senator’s embarrassment over the state of affairs in Washington.

With 33 Senate seats up next year — as well as control of the U.S. House and the presidency — Case said the nation’s future hangs in the balance.

“If you are not up for that job, then you shouldn’t be asking for that job,” he said.

A Moderate, Independent Electorate?

Speaking with Civil Beat after the opening, Case said he would need at least $1 million to wage his campaign. He shrugged off a question about how much he trails Hirono in fundraising.

Case also disagreed that Hawaii Democrats, as some have portrayed them, are a monolithic voting bloc. He sees them as a large, diverse group that includes many moderates and independents like himself.

As for the DSCC attack on his polling, Case said the national organization doesn’t like to think that a Republican can beat a Democrat in Hawaii.

“And that’s not the case,” he said. “I’ve said that to them directly. Common wisdom is that Lingle could do very well against Hirono. So, from my perspective, the poll just said what everybody thinks. But they prefer to maintain the fiction, and I think it’s better to put things on the table from the get-go.”

Case now begins a neighbor island campaign swing.

“Grassroots is really critical,” he said. “You don’t win elections on money alone. … Grassroots is why we have been able to do as well as we have, because I have gotten out there and met folks and earned their support at the local level. We don’t run our campaigns, you know, out of Bishop Street.”

Born and raised on the neighbor islands, Case believes he knows their issues. He built on his relationships on the neighbor islands while serving the 2nd Congressional District. By his count, he held 175 “talk story” sessions in the largely rural district.

“But here’s the really important thing about having done that — it’s a direct contrast with Hirono,” he said. “Because people know that I did it, and they know she hasn’t done it. I hear that repeatedly.”

Case called 2012 a critical election year for both Hawaii and the nation. But it’s also a critical year for his political career, one that could mark a new beginning or an end.

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