It’s an unusual sight: political signs for Ben Cayetano and Linda Lingle, side by side in the same yard.

These days, you’ll often see a sign for Charles Djou along with them. Look closely at the photograph on this page and you’ll even see a bumper sticker for Panos Prevedouros along with stickers for Djou, Lingle and Cayetano.

What’s going on here?

Is it really possible that the same person who plans to vote for a Democrat like Cayetano on Nov. 6 could also cast a ballot for Republicans Lingle and Djou? That the same voter may have even supported Prevedouros for Honolulu mayor in 2008 and 2010?

“You betcha,” as a certain former governor from Alaska likes to say.

Hawaii’s 2012 election is about a lot of things: about how many Democrats will control the Hawaii Legislature, whether Republicans can pick up any seats, whether there will be enough dissidents to overthrow the House speaker, whether the Big Island will stick with its current mayor or go back to its former one.

But on Oahu, it’s mostly about one issue: rail.

Because Cayetano fell short of the necessary 50-percent-plus-one votes to win the Aug. 11 primary outright, he faces Kirk Caldwell in a runoff.

That means Cayetano, the former governor, is on the ballot with his old nemesis, Lingle, the candidate who almost stopped his re-election in 1998.

These two politicians don’t like each other much. Yet, Lingle’s fate may depend in part on Cayetano pulling the anti-rail vote that might also be sympathetic to her candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

That race pits Lingle against Mazie Hirono, Cayetano’s lieutenant governor and the woman Lingle defeated to win the governorship in 2002.

What an odd election year. We’ll know how it all shakes out just two months from today.

Does Kirk + Peter = Stop Ben?

Despite their intertwined fates, don’t expect Lingle and Cayetano to campaign for each other.

Still, Lingle has noted that it is “kind of ironic” she and Cayetano agree on concerns about rail. She predicted that the Cayetano-Caldwell runoff will likely boost turnout in the general election — “and that’s a good thing,” she told reporters the day after the primary.

The big question in the mayoral contest is whether the 51,101 people who voted for incumbent Peter Carlisle will vote with the 59,963 who voted for Caldwell to deny Cayetano the seat. Combined, the votes would comfortably exceed the 90,956 won by Cayetano.

One clue as to whether the pro-Carlisle vote might go to the pro-Caldwell vote comes from Civil Beat’s Aug. 7 poll of the race:

• Of Carlisle’s supporters, 70 percent said they’d pick Caldwell versus only 7 percent who chose Cayetano. Nineteen percent said they wouldn’t vote for either.

• Of Caldwell’s supporters, 66 percent said their second choice would be Carlisle versus only 12 percent who would pick Cayetano in that matchup. Fifteen percent said they wouldn’t vote.

It’s less clear how Lingle might be helped by the rail vote. If turnout is high on Oahu for the general election, conventional wisdom suggests it will help dominant Democrats, since there are more of them than Republicans in Hawaii and because isle-born Barack Obama leads the ballot.

Still, Lingle can already count on many of the residents in Kailua and East Honolulu that favor Cayetano; those neighborhoods will not benefit directly from rail — though they are paying for it just the same — and so are among the most passionately against the $5.26 billion project.

Lingle has not been widely recognized as an anti-rail candidate. Indeed, she is running on a platform that seeks to stress what she argues is a bipartisan record of accomplishment.

But of two Republicans running for the U.S. House of Representatives, one — Djou — has been a strong and consistent critic of the project, particularly during his time on the Honolulu City Council. The issue is likely to come up in his rematch against U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, given that the seat covers much of Oahu.

The other candidate, the relatively unknown and longshot Kawika Crowley, has singled out rail — he hates it — as one of his top issues against Tulsi Gabbard, who generally has favored the project.

For Democrats, the most important factor when it comes to rail may be the fact that U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye wants it built. It’s very unlikely that Hirono, Hanabusa and Gabbard will stray from the party line.

Rail Referendum

Of course, the question of whether or not to have rail isn’t actually on the ballot.

The only time Honolulu voters have weighed in on rail, in 2008, it was pretty close: 53 percent to 47 percent. An analysis of the vote showed that voters who lived closer to the planned 20-mile route from East Kapolei to Ala Moana favored the project by the largest margins.

“But the vote was much closer near Downtown, Waikiki and out in Waianae, and voters broke against rail in East Honolulu and on the Windward side,” reported The Honolulu Advertiser.

Since that time, support for rail has slipped. An April poll conducted by Civil Beat showed that only 36 percent of likely voters supported rail and 55 percent opposed it.

The big question: Will the ruling against rail by the Hawaii Supreme Court late last month embolden opponents of the project to vote for Cayetano? Or will it rally supporters — including lots of labor and business clout — behind Caldwell?

The other question is how the rail debate will influence other races.

In the contest to fill Gabbard’s council seat, for example, candidate Sam Aiona thinks rail will be key to the outcome.

“Of all the major candidates running in the special election, none of them are speaking for the vast majority of voters who oppose the city’s planned rail project,” he said when announcing his run last week. “Voters are sending a clear message to city officials that they do not want the project and I believe the voters from Makiki to Kalihi deserve an opportunity to voice their opinion at the ballot box.”

Though the council race, like the mayoral race, is nonpartisan, it’s worth noting that Aiona is a former Republican lawmaker. We can expect to hear where his chief opponents, former Council member Jon Yoshimura and outgoing state Sen. Carol Fukunaga — both Democrats — stand on rail.

Rail is also likely to emerge in legislative races, with positions likely to be influenced by geography and party.

One way or another, the 2012 election is the rail election, the year we may look back on as having been decisive to its future.

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