With all eyes on the special election to replace Neil Abercrombie in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, there’s nary a peep out of the 2nd Congressional contest.

Maybe most people assume it will be a cake walk for incumbent Mazie Hirono. After all, no Hawaii member of the U.S. House of Representatives has ever lost re-election. And the 2nd Congressional seat has been held by Democrats since its creation.

The national Cook Political Report does not list the 2nd Congressional as a competitive race, while CQ Politics considers the seat “virtually certain” to stay Democratic. Hirono has $681,000 in the bank, while the next largest fundraiser considering entering the race has $565.

But why is her seat essentially uncontested? Unlike Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who is also up for re-election this year, Hirono does not direct massive amounts of federal funds to Hawaii. And her political career reveals she’s not always been the strongest of candidates.

Consider recent history: In 2006, when Hirono first ran for Congress, she faced nine opponents in the Democratic primary. Seven were recognized politicians, and Hirono barely won with 20.7 percent of the vote. Colleen Hanabusa was a close second with 20 percent — only 844 votes behind Hirono — and had the race lasted another two weeks Hanabusa might have prevailed.

Once free of the crowded field, Hirono went on to easily win the general election over Republican Bob Hogue. Two years later she faced no primary challenger and took nearly 70 percent of the vote in the general, where she faced a weak Republican and two independents.

Earlier in her career, when Hirono ran for governor in 2002 as the sitting lieutenant governor, she had another close race. She faced five Democrats in the primary, including Ed Case and D.G. “Andy” Anderson, a veteran Republican who switched parties for the race. Despite the backing of influential Democrats, including former Gov. John D. Waihee III and U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, Hirono squeaked by with 40.6 percent. But Case’s second-place 39.2 percent stunned Democrats.

Hirono then went on to lose the general election to Linda Lingle by 51-46 percent, putting the first Republican in Washington Place in four decades. An emboldened Case went on to win a special election to replace the late Patsy Mink in Congress.

Hirono told Civil Beat she is definitely running for re-election and welcomed competition.

“I’ve never had a free ride — never,” she said. “I always see a benefit in contested elections, and that means the people have a choice. I would not know what it is like otherwise.”

In her four years in office, Hirono has rarely made headlines. Hirono’s record in Congress shows that she has sponsored 14 pieces of legislation, including two measures amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Another amends the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act to revise and extend the act.

Her direct predecessor, Case, had a deeper record in his four years as a congressman. He introduced 35 bills, sponsored legislation that turned the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands into a national marine refuge (it later was designated a national monument), visited troops in Afghanistan and Iraq (twice), and participated in delegations to Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait, Pakistan, China and Germany.

The only mention of an overseas trip on Hirono’s web page is being part of an official delegation to Belgium to attend a Thanksgiving Mass following the canonization of Father Damien. The nonpartisan congressional tracking service LegiStorm lists Hirono as taking three trips between January 2008 and August 2009: to Alberta, Tel Aviv and Tokyo.

Hirono defends her record, noting that when Case was in Congress the Republican Party controlled the House and conducted business two or three days a week. That changed, said Hirono, when she replaced Case in 2006 and Democrats took over the House.

“That enabled some members from Hawaii to go home every week,” she said. “More power to them, but that’s not getting work done in Congress and that’s not what we have now. We vote four to five days a week now.”

In the 2010 election, Hirono thus far faces no primary challenger. As of April 29, even she had yet to pull papers to run.

One Republican, Antonio Gimbernat of Makawao, Maui, has filed. Another Republican, John Willoughby of Honolulu, a United Airlines pilot, has pulled papers, as have Libertarian Patric Brock of Kihei, Maui, and Andrew Von Sonn, a nonpartisan candidate from Paia, Maui.

Through March 31, Hirono reported having $681,199 cash on hand and $127,099 in debt. Gimbernat had $565, Willoughby had no money, and Von Sonn had not reported.

Another potential challenger, Republican Ramsay Wharton, also had no cash on hand and had yet to pull papers. But Wharton, a former TV journalist, has a web page, www.ramsay2010.com, as does Willoughby, www.willoughbyforcongress.com.

Several media personalities have had success at local politics, including the late Barbara Marshall on the Honolulu City Council and Glenn Wakai in the state Legislature. But others, like Dalton Tanonaka, have failed several times to change careers.

Erin Kealoha, communications director for the Republican Party of Hawaii, said having several Republicans in the 2nd Congressional primary Sept. 18 will “energize” the base. She singled out Willoughby and Wharton as candidates that could give Hirono a run for her money in the Nov. 2 general election.

“When you talk about Mazie Hirono, she is a new legislator and her record hasn’t been anything outstanding — she’s really towing the party line as far as Obama is concerned,” said Kealoha. “If you look at that nationally, people in America are very upset with the way Congress is running, and Mazie Hirono is one of them. It’s great to give Hawaii a choice.”

Dante Carpenter, interim chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, believes Hirono is likely to keep her seat because her constituents see her as having inherited the mantle of her female predecessor Mink who died in office in 2002.

“I’ve known her for years. She’s hardworking, a very industrious lady who has essentially carried the message of Patsy Mink,” he said. “In a sense she is the reincarnation of Patsy in the regard she carries on the message for women, for education, for athletics.”

About the Author