UPDATED 11:20 a.m.

Here’s what Mazie Hirono has to say about Linda Lingle, her U.S. Senate opponent:

She’s not really bipartisan. She doesn’t tell the truth. She’s had an extreme makeover. She’s pals with Sarah Palin. She and Mitt Romney share the same platform — in fact, she’s co-chair of his presidential campaign. She thinks George W. Bush was our greatest president. Furlough Fridays were all her fault.

Here’s what Lingle thinks of Hirono:

She’s not a leader. She doesn’t tell the truth. She has no record and no ideas. She’s pals with Barney Frank. She skips a lot of votes in the U.S. Congress — except for the ones where she voted for military cuts and against free trade with South Korea. She doesn’t understand things like the Compact of Free Association.

The race between Democrat Hirono, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Republican Lingle, the former Hawaii governor, has been dominated by strong attacks on each other’s campaign.

The attacks have come in television commercials, campaign press releases and websites, social media and in debates.

While voters may be able to figure out the differences between the candidates on important issues like entitlement programs, deficit reduction, energy, jobs, health care, national security and Native Hawaiians, the flood of attacks threatens to drown out more serious discussion.

Has the U.S. Senate race become too negative?

Nothing Like The Mayor’s Race

It depends on one’s definition of the word.

“I don’t think it’s accurate to call it negative. More negative than the Honolulu mayoral race?” says John Hart, professor and chair of the communications department at Hawaii Pacific University. He was referring to the Pacific Resource Partnership campaign against Ben Cayetano. “I think it’s a hard-fought race, but it’s not the most negative race we’ve ever had here, or the most negatively currently. The mayor’s race is much more negative.”

Dan Boylan, a local political analyst and MidWeek columnist, agrees the mayoral race has been far uglier. But he’s noticed a general increase in negative ads this year.

“I watched the local news with my son the other night and we started laughing at number of ads, almost all of which were negative,” he said. “The Senate, Congress, the mayoral race. The ads for Colleen Hanabusa and Charles Djou were not so negative, but the others were. It’s Las Vegas now — anything goes.”

But Boylan does not think the volume of negative ads is a surprise.

“We saw this trend coming in 2010, and we have had negative campaigning before,” he said. “We just tend to forget that, though the ads have not been as negative as over the last few years. But the big difference now is the money involved. In the Senate, it’s an enormous amount of money, $4-5 million for the campaigns, the hires, national consultants.”

Boylan continued: “And they are going after each other with negative campaigning because it’s been proven, sadly, that negative ads can work and that you can damage the other person’s profile or remind people and hit things that the early attitude polls you took demonstrate a weakness of that candidate in voters’ minds.”

In that regard, Hirono may not be as hurt by the negative ads as Lingle.

“It seems to me that the Furlough Friday ads, whether they are effective or not, it certainly has tapped into something that’s hurting Lingle,” said Neal Milner, a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii. “And Lingle’s attempt to deny all responsibility for it is just not accurate. She may have not done the actual negotiation that led to the furloughs, but governors are players.”

Milner said that Hirono is somewhat immune to whatever negative ads Lingle throws her way.

“My hunch is that the Lingle ads on Hirono — the blackboard ads and doing zero — I think that depiction resonates with lots of people when they think about Mazie, including Democrats. But — and this is the big ‘but’ — I don’t think it’s likely to be enough to dig into that pool,” he said. “There’s just too many Democrats who are loyal.”

Milner added, “I don’t think Linda Lingle is tactically wrong for running those kinds of things, because she doesn’t have a lot to work with.”

Compare and Decide

Hawaii certainly has had its share of negative campaigns. Think of the 2010 race for governor between Mufi Hannemann and Neil Abercrombie, when Hannemann distributed a mailer comparing the candidates’ wives and upbringing, among other things.

Still, the 2012 Senate contest has been aggressive. It’s a sharp contrast to the last competitive Senate race in Hawaii, where Ed Case challenged incumbent Daniel Akaka.

Case effectively told voters they should choose him because he’s much younger than Akaka, all the while expressing his deep aloha for the senior senator. He also tried to paint Akaka as ineffective, but that didn’t work, either, and Case lost by 10 percentage points.

Which raises a question: What constitutes negative? Isn’t it appropriate to scrutinize a candidate’s record and question their ability?

In that regard, Hirono and Lingle have been unrelenting.

For example, of the nearly 90 press releases on Hirono’s campaign website, from Dec. 1 through Oct. 20, roughly half directly — and critically — address Lingle, though Hirono would not face her as an opponent until after winning the Aug. 11 primary.

A good many are “fact checks,” like Lingle’s Premium Support Plan (aka Vouchers) Would Raise Health Care Costs For Seniors. They include citations. (Lingle insists that Hirono is wrong to call her plan a voucher.)

The press releases show the Hirono camp fast to react to national events, as when Hirono condemned Romney’s remarks about the “47 percent” and criticized Lingle’s silence on the matter. Some are pretty clever, like John Hancock to Lingle: “Hey, we’d like our ad back”, which refers to a Lingle TV spot that resembles one from the insurance company.

Hirono also spoke critically about Lingle not pulling her attack ads on the Sept. 11 anniversary. Words used frequently in Hirono’s press releases include “Republican,” “Bush” “Romney,” “Ryan,” “Medicare,” “health care,” “tax cuts” and “Furlough Fridays.”

Lingle gives as good as she gets, though.

Of the more than 100 press releases on Lingle’s campaign website during the same timeframe, roughly one-fourth directly — and critically — address Hirono, though Lingle would not face her as an opponent until after winning the Aug. 11 primary.

Only a handful were released before the primary, including condemning Hirono for inviting Rep. Frank of Massachusetts to campaign for her in Hawaii — “the same Barney Frank who is one of the most partisan, divisive politicians in Washington, D.C. and whose decisions led to today’s abysmal state of our nation’s economy.”

Lingle frequently relies on her campaign manager, Bob Lee, to do the fighting, as in this attack on Hirono’s energy plan: “Hirono’s vaguely defined ‘advocacy’ for clean energy and sustainability is laughable. In 22 years as a state legislator and Lieutenant Governor, the only major energy solution she has gotten behind was the economically irresponsible, failed ‘gas price cap’ that she championed during her unsuccessful run for Governor in 2002.”

The pace of Lingle’s attacks picked up significantly shortly after the primary, when the blackboard ad that Milner referred to first aired. Titled “Mazie Hirono Does Not Add Up for Hawaii,” the ad says Hirono had passed no legislation during her six years in Congress: “Zero for working families, zero for our kupuna, zero for businesses. That just doesn’t add up for Hawaii.”

Meanwhile, Lee began chronicling how many times Hirono did not show up to invitations to joint candidate forums, calling her “No Show Hirono.”

Keiki and Kupuna

Despite the negative content, Hirono and Lingle also accentuate the positive.

The videos and TV spots produced by the campaigns are mostly glowing portrayals of the candidates and what they’ll do for Hawaii. There are keiki and kupuna, people of all walks of life, talking about how wonderful their Senate nominees are.

That same message of affirmation carries into Facebook and Twitter feeds for the campaigns. But there’s also a lot of jabs, especially on Twitter. Lingle’s tweets include these cuts:

Lingle’s campaign often tweets out multiple versions of the same tweet even when they are misleading. The Dave Shapiro column that ran in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for example, was published in July, several weeks before Hirono crushed Case in the primary. Yet, Lingle continues to reference the column to suggest that Lingle might yet prevail.

Hirono’s tweets have been far less repetitive, though they are biting, too:


Like Lingle, Hirono can be misleading in her attacks. For example, a video clip called “Plan” ties Lingle to Romney and cites an Aug. 1 Star-Advertiser article stating that Lingle is co-chair of Romney’s campaign. Problem is, Lingle is co-chair of the Jewish Americans for Romney Coalition, not his presidential campaign, and the Star-Advertiser article does not appear to exist.1

With just two weeks remaining, and with the last televised debate between Hirono and Lingle set for Monday evening, it’s possible the attacks may intensify. It was reported Sunday that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has purchased another $250,000 in local TV time, but instead of running rosy ads for Lingle the chamber will go negative against Hirono.

Whether all the negativity makes any difference won’t be known until Nov. 6, of course. But don’t be surprised if the loser of the Senate race points to the attacks as a reason why.

A Mazie Hirono television spot targeting Linda Lingle.”

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