Former Gov. Linda Lingle's decision to run is likely to shine a national spotlight on Hawaii in the quest to replace Daniel Akaka
POSTED: 1:14 a.m. HST, May 20, 2012
Former Gov. Linda Lingle's entry Tuesday in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate vaults Hawaii onto the national political map next year, opening a new front in the struggle for control in Washington, D.C.
Lingle, the first woman and the first Republican in four decades elected Hawaii governor, gives the GOP a genuine prospect in a state traditionally dominated by Democrats. Senate Democrats and independents have a 53-to-47 majority over Republicans, so four seats can swing the balance of power.
Democrats and independents have to defend 23 Senate seats next year, while Republicans have to protect just 10 seats. Political analysts who have rated Hawaii as safe for Democrats while waiting for Lingle's decision began to re-evaluate on Tuesday.
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono and Ed Case, a former congressman -- the Democrats who want to replace U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who is not seeking another term -- remain favored. A Republican has not represented Hawaii in the Senate since U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong retired from office in 1977.
Lingle has set a fundraising goal of $8 million to $10 million, a much higher bar than Hirono or Case, and analysts believe millions more will be spent in the islands by national interests that want to influence the outcome of a Senate campaign in President Barack Obama's birthplace.
"While it's a tough year, I think, to try and win a Senate seat with Obama at the top of the ballot, I think Lingle is about the only Republican who could do it, especially given how voters feel about Congress," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report, a national newsletter that monitors political campaigns. "They don't seem to like them very much."
Duffy said she could move Hawaii from a "solid Democrat" rating into "lean Democrat" or "tossup" later this week. She said Democrats typically do not have to worry about protecting Hawaii and are already spread thin nationally. "So they pretty much need another competitive race like they need a hole in the head," she said.
Lingle, 58, announced her decision to run on "Perry & Price," KSSK's top-rated morning radio show, and framed her campaign during a luncheon address to the Sales and Marketing Executives International at the Pacific Club.
The two-term governor and former Maui County mayor said it was critically important for Hawaii to have political balance in the Senate so the islands can have influence regardless of which party holds power.
She cited the friendship and strategic alliance between U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, as an example.
"Having a senator from each party is the very best possible situation for us, because it doesn't matter which party is in control, we will always have one of our senators within that caucus and able to bring our issues forward in a very articulate and strong manner," Lingle said.
She said her chief executive experience would be an asset and has made her a more practical, less ideological leader. She described herself as an independent who would not always follow national Republicans on policy. She said she would likely gravitate to the center politically, in the mold of moderate U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
"I've tried to make this point very, very clear: I don't work for (Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell, and I don't work for President Obama," Lingle said. "I work for the people of Hawaii."
She blamed both political parties for the bitter partisanship that has caused gridlock in Washington. "I think the politicians in Washington need to grow up and get serious," she said.
Her campaign priorities will be job creation, deficit reduction, regulatory relief and a fair tax policy. She called for job impact statements -- similar to environmental impact statements -- to measure potential job losses before any new federal rules or regulations are approved.
Lingle also said she wanted to serve as the point person for tourism and for Asia-Pacific issues in the Senate.
Democrats immediately sought to undercut Lingle's claims of independence. Lingle campaigned on the mainland for President George W. Bush's re-election in 2004 and for U.S. Sen. John McCain's unsuccessful campaign in 2008. She also helped introduce former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the GOP's vice presidential nominee at the Republican National Convention.
"Today marks Linda Lingle's biggest announcement since she nominated Sarah Palin for vice president, an event that typifies Lingle's partisan Republican approach to governing," said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Now Lingle wants to go to Washington to become a rubber stamp for Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party, whose sole priority is to defeat President Obama at every turn."
Jadine Nielsen, finance chairwoman for the Hirono campaign, also tied Lingle to mainland conservatives. "The national Republican Party has been anxious to move Lingle back to center stage as they did at the 2008 Republican National Convention, when Lingle went on national television to second Sarah Palin's nomination for vice president and endorse the McCain-Palin ticket over our island son, Barack Obama," she said in an email.
Case, a moderate who also sees himself aligning with Senate centrists, said Lingle would become "just another senator operating in Washington for the few at the expense of most."
Some Hawaii Democrats have privately doubted the strategy of painting Lingle as part of the far right, since she governed mostly as a moderate. But Case said Lingle should have to answer for her record.
"We all have our record, and Lingle's record is not getting along, not crossing the bridges, eight years of not accomplishing anything across the aisle," he said. "And she did in fact go out there and endorse Sarah Palin, who is about as far right as you can get. And she wanted Sarah Palin to be vice president of this country, and you cannot get away from that.
"Linda can talk all she wants, right down the road of this campaign. It's not going to change what she's actually done, and the spin is not going to work."
Lingle told reporters she does not think voters will respond to what she described as an "unoriginal cookie-cutter attack," particularly from national Democrats, since voters know her and her record.
Lingle will face John Carroll, an attorney and former state lawmaker, in the Republican primary next August. The conservative Carroll faults Lingle for her support of a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill sponsored by Akaka and for not working against the Jones Act, the federal maritime law that protects the domestic shipping industry from foreign competition.
Lingle has won in two statewide campaigns. She raised a record $5.5 million when she defeated Hirono in the governor's race in 2002 and then broke the record again by collecting more than $6 million for her re-election in 2006.
But Lingle has not run statewide in a presidential election year. Obama took 71.5 percent of the vote in Hawaii four years ago, and many analysts believe Lingle will not be able to attract the independents and moderate Democrats she needs if the president enjoys another island landslide next year.
"Voters are very discerning," Lingle said. "They're not robots. They don't just go down the line. They vote what's in the interest of their family and their business and the state of Hawaii."
Other moderate Republicans who have drawn some political support from Democrats during their careers, such as state Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe) -- who lost to Akaka in 2006 -- also believe Lingle has a chance.
"I don't think having the president coming from Hawaii is going to be what people are thinking about," Thielen said. "I think they're thinking about jobs, the economy, and that's her strength. She knows how to run things and put people back to work."
Hawaii News Now video: Lingle announces run for U.S. Senate