The announced retirement of U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka means a Hawaii Senate seat is up for grabs for the first time in decades.
For Democrats, here’s the good news: Out of the gate, there are six in their party who are politically strong and smart enough to mount a statewide campaign.
And the bad news for Democrats is that because there are six, there is no consensus leader of the pack and no one with the fundraising ability and appeal of former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.
Hawaii’s senior Sen. Daniel Inouye did his own informal handicapping of the talent pool last week when he was asked about strong contenders to replace either Akaka or himself because of retirement, a primary challenge or eventual succession.
Inouye first named newly elected Democratic Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, then Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann. Upon prompting from reporters, Inouye added former U.S. Rep. Ed Case to the list and tossed in Tammy Duckworth, Veterans Affairs Department assistant secretary, a one-time Honolulu resident.
Democratic politicians and veteran political operators yesterday quickly culled Abercrombie, who has said serving as governor would be his last public office, and Duckworth, who in 2006 ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Illinois. She is a political unknown in Hawaii.
Lingle has not yet said she will run, although last year she said she was considering a 2012 challenge for the Senate. Without Akaka in the race for Democrats to rally around, Lingle looks stronger.
On the Democratic side, all the potential candidates have problems.
Some do well in a general election, but have trouble winning a primary. Others have to make a big decision on whether to risk their entire career against a Republican candidate likely to have almost unlimited help and financial support from mainland political organizations.
Hanabusa, a tough former state Senate president, made four attempts before she was able to capture her congressional seat. She would risk all if she decides to go for the Senate.
Hirono, who has served quietly in the House since 2006, would also risk her political career and with the 2002 race for governor, already has a loss to Lingle on her record.
Case’s history is more complicated. He is a former two-term congressman who in 2006 ran unsuccessfully to unseat Akaka. The primary campaign split the local Democratic Party with many old-time Democrats picking Akaka against the younger Case.
Since then, Case has failed in runs for Congress, first in the special election to succeed Neil Abercrombie, then in the general election for the two-year term.
Case came in third behind Hanabusa and Republican Charles Djou in the special election. To avoid another ticket-splitting race in the general, he withdrew. Now he remains interested in running for the Senate.
Schatz is a former state House member and state Democratic Party chairman. He is a strong campaigner, but has also run unsuccessfully for Congress. Democrats consider him to have potential for a long political career, and he could run for the Senate without having to resign his state office. If Schatz wins the primary, a general election campaign against Lingle is likely to turn into a referendum on the Abercrombie administration.
Finally, former Mayor Mufi Hannemann has previously considered running for the Senate if Akaka stepped down or decided to retire. Unfortunately for Hannemann, the Akaka retirement decision comes after Hannemann gave up his City Hall job for last year’s unsuccessful campaign for governor.