Who will be Hawaii’s next U.S. senator?

Mazie Hirono.

That’s according to three respected national political analysis groups — the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report and Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a website run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Civil Beat contacted all three on Friday to see what they’re thinking as the primary draws near.

After all, there’s been a lot of recent activity in the Senate contest: the just-concluded debates between Hirono and Ed Case, her opponent in the Democratic primary; a Civil Beat poll that shows that race to be tied; the launching of a TV ad and a digital cable channel by Linda Lingle, the presumed Republican candidate in the general; and the tightening national election between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

The analysis from all three groups: Hirono is still on track to win both the primary and general.

Rothenberg and Sabato both say Hawaii still “leans left” in the Senate seat while Cook still rates the race as a “toss up.” Each predicts that Hirono is a near lock to beat Case and to fend off Lingle, and that neither race will likely be close.

Reasons vary, but the main ones are that the debates are over and Hirono made no big gaffes (“She dodged a bullet,” as one analyst put it). Case has no cash, the D.C. Democratic establishment is on Hirono’s side and Obama was born here.

“Case’s message seems to be resonating and making those inroads, but his biggest problem is money,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with Cook. “The question is when she eventually goes on air (with TV ads), can he be competitive? Right now, it doesn’t necessarily appear that way.”

“Certainly Lingle is the only Republican that they could get to make this race worth watching,” said Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst with Rothenberg. “But when you look at the larger Senate landscape, where President Obama may not be the asset that he was four years ago in a lot of states, Hawaii is certainly not one of those because it is his birth state. He will do quite well, and that is a tough thing for Lingle to overcome.”

“If this were an off-year race, Lingle would have a much better chance,” said Sabato. “But President Obama will get 65-70 percent of the Hawaii vote and so it’s really difficult to imagine Lingle winning that many Obama votes. That is a ton of Obama votes. It’s very difficult to succeed under those circumstances.”

Sabato added, “This is a coattail ticket year, when states that vote Democrat will vote that way from the courthouse to the White House.”

Democratic Machine Loves Hirono

Duffy and Taylor dismissed Civil Beat’s poll, saying the survey, which is automated and does not reach cell phones, wasn’t the best measure of voter attitudes.

Hirono also has “practically the entire Democratic establishment” behind her, said Taylor.

Though she said Case “cannot be discounted — he’s not going away,” Taylor could not identify a major Democratic group supporting his candidacy.

Besides blanketing island TV sets with commercials, Hirono can use her campaign war chest to get out the primary vote, which is on a Saturday, a difficult time to get folks to concentrate on civic duty.

Sabato said he’s not even paying attention to Hawaii’s primary.

“It’s irrelevant,” he said. “Our assumption is that Hirono is fortunate for lots of different reasons. You do have somewhat of a Democratic machine there, and it’s pretty clear it much prefers Hirono to Case.”

If things appear close leading up to the Aug. 11 primary, however, look for groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List to start throwing a lot of money into Hawaii on behalf of Hirono.

Taylor said Hirono’s biggest worry is that she will have to take Case seriously — her strategy has largely been to ignore him — and spend more of her money to fight him rather than saving for the fight against Lingle.

“That would be a bonus for Lingle,” she said.

Criticizing Case’s record on women’s issues, as Hirono did during the debates, won’t have much impact.

“That’s not at the top of voters’ agenda right now,” said Duffy. “In a good economy, a peaceful world, you might be able to make that argument. But voters care about the economy and jobs to the exclusion of almost everything else.”

Duffy added, “It’s not like she is running against Rick Santorum, where she could actually make the argument about a war on women.”

What Lingle Needs To Do To Win

Duffy, Taylor and Sabato agree that Lingle is the only Republican in Hawaii that could be elected to the U.S. Senate.

Charles Djou, who served briefly in Congress and is seeking a rematch against U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, is nowhere as credible a candidate as Lingle, because she had two terms as governor. She defeated Hirono, the sitting lieutenant governor in 2002 and won re-election in 2006 by a very comfortable margin.

Though Lingle is vulnerable on some points, she does have a solid record and is generally perceived as a successful governor. Taylor calls her “one of the best Republican candidates across the country.”

Lingle’s strategy, the analysts say, is the right one: to portray herself as a moderate or centrist who can work with Obama.

“She’s running a really strong campaign, reaching out to voters on multiple channels, presenting herself as a problem-solver, which is a pretty sharp contrast to Hirono, who is ruuning as more of the same,” said Duffy. “And being a member of Congress is not so popular these days. It has a 17 percent approval rating.”

Duffy said most governors are not popular when they leave office, with voters suffering fatigue. But Lingle benefits from the rough start for her successor, Democrat Neil Abercrombie.

“Democrats may think they can really tear into her record, but it will probably be more of a challenge than they believe,” she said. “I expect a close race, but she Lingle is going to have to outperform Romney 10 to 15 points (in Hawaii) because of Obama, and she is aware of it. So Lingle’s real job here is to get voters to see this as two separate races and two separate decisions to be made governed by different factors.”

“The one thing she can do is assume her Republican base will understand and give her some leeway, and then run as though she is trying to be President Obama’s ticket mate,” said Sabato. “She should stress all the things they agree on — ‘I look forward to working with Obama on immigration, energy, transportation, education, as I did as governor — look how similar we are, we will work together every step of the way.’ Her base will understand that it is a political strategy.”

Sabato added, “It will be tough for Lingle, though not impossible. Lingle is the only Hawaii Republican who can possibly come close much less win in this particular year.”

As with the primary, if Hirono is in trouble, mainland Democrat groups will start spending money in Hawaii.

“This is a place where Democrats do not want to spend money, and if they start to, it tells you everything about the race,” said Duffy.

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