POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 18, 2011
The 2012 race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka is starting to look like a replay of Hawaii’s 2002 election for governor.
Early polls show U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case running in a dead heat for the Democratic nomination, with healthy leads over other hopefuls. The winner will likely face former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.
In 2002 then-Lt. Gov. Hirono narrowly edged then-state Rep. Case in the Democratic primary for governor, only to fall to Lingle in the general election and lose the Democrats’ hold on the state’s top job for the first time in 40 years.
The stakes are similar this year, with Republicans trying to take a Hawaii U.S. Senate seat for the first time since Hiram Fong retired in 1976.
After the 2002 election, Case won the 2nd Congressional District seat opened by the death of Patsy Mink, but gave up the job four years later in his failed attempt to unseat Akaka. He lost a comeback attempt in the 1st Congressional District last year.
Hirono won the U.S. House seat that Case vacated in 2006 and, as with her stint as lieutenant governor, has maintained near invisibility except for the occasional news release assuring voters that she’s “fighting” for us. The ultralow profile keeps her free of controversy.
Lingle was popular with voters during her first six years as governor but sank in her final years as she stumbled through the state budget crisis. She’d need a major image makeover but would have millions of GOP dollars to get it done.
Another Democrat could crash the 2002 reunion, but the polls showing other contenders well behind will give them pause.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa had to try three times to win her seat in the U.S. House and wouldn’t give it up lightly to run as the underdog in a senatorial crap shoot. She’d have another shot at the Senate when Daniel Inouye retires.
The same with Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, who has put himself in good position to contend for governor in the future and wouldn’t likely risk it on a long-shot Senate run without seeing a clear path to victory. He’s young enough to serve eight years as lieutenant governor and eight years as governor and still run for the Senate at a younger age than the current crop of Democratic contenders.
Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann has nothing to lose, but he’s damaged political goods after his lopsided loss to Neil Abercrombie in last year’s Democratic primary for governor.
Hannemann might have better luck doing his rehabilitation in stages by running this year for the U.S. House seat Hirono and/or Hanabusa will leave open and deferring his Senate ambitions until Inouye steps down.