The 2012 Hawaii election will be the first since 1974 in which Neil Abercrombie will not be a candidate for office.

It’s unlikely that the governor and Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz will be passively watching events from the Capitol’s fifth floor; both Democrats will surely campaign for their fellow party members.

Still, practically the only major seats not up for grabs are the governor’s and LG’s. Daniel K. Inouye doesn’t face re-election until 2016, but even if he were running next year it’s a safe bet he’d win handily.

Two congressional races are open: the one for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Akaka, who is retiring, and the one for the 2nd Congressional District seat left open by Mazie Hirono, who is gunning for Akaka’s job.

Another Democrat, Ed Case, is also in the Senate hunt, as is Republican Linda Lingle. It’s the biggest race of the year for Hawaii, the first open U.S. Senate race since 1976.

How long ago was that?

In 1976, the 38-year-old Abercrombie was running for re-election to the state Hawaii Legislature.

A New Senator

Because control of the U.S. Senate is at stake this year, Hawaii’s Senate race matters nationally. Both parties as well as independent groups can be expected to throw a lot of money this way to affect the outcome.

Hirono has the backing of unions, major PACs, Inouye and the Democratic establishment. She’s an incumbent who’s cut her teeth dealing with House Tea Partiers. She’s a progressive liberal.

Case, a former congressman, is struggling to raise cash but is focusing on nurturing grassroots networks. He may have stronger neighbor island support than Hirono, though both served the same House district. Case is moderate and independent and feels he would be the stronger candidate against Lingle.

Lingle is a middle-of-the-road Republican, the most successful politician in her party’s recent history. She believes a record of bipartisanship makes her the best candidate to send to Washington. She is also a whiz at raising money and spending it on smooth PR.

(Lingle’s primary candidate is John Carroll, who hasn’t won an election in years despite repeated attempts.)

All three have baggage; Hirono has had a low profile in D.C., Case sometimes seems mostly concerned about Case, Lingle’s last years in office were rough. Remember Furlough Fridays and the Superferry?

Either Lingle or Hirono would be the state’s first female senator. And this may be Case’s last bid for high office after two consecutive blowouts.

The donkey in the room is a native son, Barack Obama. Local folks are certain to vote overwhelmingly for the Punahou graduate, which could hurt Lingle, who whole-heartedly embraced Sarah Palin and George W. Bush.

A New Rep

Because control of the U.S. House is at stake, Hawaii’s two House seats are also of national importance. Hirono’s run for the Senate opens up the race for CD2 — the second time in as many years that a Hawaii House race will not feature an incumbent.

Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann is the favorite, based on name recognition, fund-raising and experience. He’s wanted to be in D.C. since growing up in Kalihi, and he’s actually run twice for Congress.

Big question: Can Hannemann avoid the negative campaigning — e.g., “Compare and Decide” — that doomed his race against Abercrombie in 2010?

Honolulu City Council member Tulsi Gabbard is the best known of the other Democrats: Hilo Attorney Bob Marx, former Office of Hawaiian Affairs staffer Esther Kiaaina and Rafael del Castillo, who pulled 18.6 percent of the vote against Colleen Hanabusa in the 2010 Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District that was won by Hanabusa.

Something to watch for: social issues. Many longtime Democrats still think of the CD2 seat as synonymous with Patsy Mink — as progressive a liberal as any Hawaii has sent to Washington. Can Hannemann or Gabbard appeal to that constituency?

To date, no Republican has announced their candidacy for CD2, but the name of former party chair Jonah Kaauwai has been bandied about.

A Rematch

Republican Charles Djou want his CD1 seat back from Democrat Hanabusa, who beat him in 2010 by 6 percentage points.

Will Djou’s deployment to Afghanistan and semi-moderate politics help him against the union-loving, Inouye-acolyte Hanabusa, who failed three times — against Case, Hirono and Djou — before finally being elected to Congress?

Honolulu Mayor

Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle is assumed to be running for re-election. No one yet has announced their intent to challenge him.

One possibility is Kirk Caldwell, the former acting mayor who came within 4 percentage points of defeating Carlisle. He’s already held a fundraiser but has yet to formally throw his hat in the ring.

Panos Prevedouros, who took 18.5 percent of the vote in 2010, just announced he would not be a candidate in 2012. Perhaps another anti-rail candidate will get in the race — like former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Sunday he’s giving it serious thought.

All the Rest

Because of redistricting, all 76 seats in the Hawaii Legislature are open. Because of population shifts, some boundaries have changed.

We know that some incumbents will face other incumbents, and the outcome of a lawsuit could determine whether the Big Island gains a state Senate seat at the expense of Oahu.

In Honolulu, Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro is up for re-election. Two Honolulu City Council seats are open because of term limits, while three incumbents — including the controversial Tom Berg — face re-election.

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