Democrats are confident they can keep U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka’s seat in 2012, but they have to hope President Barack Obama remains popular in his home state and their nominee is capable of raising more money than any Democrat has for a previous Hawaii campaign.
The majority party has the advantage of history — no Republican has held a Senate seat in Hawaii in 35 years — and an electorate where 50 percent told Gallup last year they lean Democratic, compared with 30 percent who lean Republican.
Obama, who was born in Hawaii, had a 66 percent job approval rating in the islands last year, the highest of any state and second only to the District of Columbia. The president’s job approval rating on the mainland was 47 percent.
With Obama on the ballot, driving voter turnout in a presidential election year, the math suggests Akaka’s seat will stay blue.
But several Democratic strategists privately offer a less optimistic scenario. The potential Democratic candidates who are looking at the race are all flawed — some deeply — and none has proven they can match the fundraising prowess or message discipline of former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle in a statewide campaign.
Nationally, most political analysts have kept Akaka’s seat in the solid or safe Democratic category since his announcement last week that he would not seek re-election.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report who tracks Senate and governors’ races, said the Hawaii Senate race would have real national significance only if Lingle runs. Democrats and independents have a 53 to 47 majority over Republicans in the Senate. She said she has six Democratic-held seats and two Republican seats in the toss-up category.
"Given Democrats’ exposure so early in the cycle," Duffy said in an e-mail, "their hold on their majority is very tenuous."
One local Democratic strategist, who declined to be identified for publication, said national Democrats have moved Akaka’s seat from safe to the "lean Democratic" category.
Former congressman Ed Case, former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz and — possibly — U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs official Tammy Duckworth are potential contenders.
None has raised the kind of money Lingle has — a record $6 million for her 2006 re-election campaign — and only Duckworth has national fundraising connections comparable to what Lingle has with the GOP.
Duckworth, a McKinley High School and University of Hawaii graduate and wounded Iraq War veteran, has the largest national profile among those potential Democratic contenders and the closest ties to Obama, but she does not live in Hawaii and would have to establish residency. She raised $4.5 million in an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in Illinois in 2006.
Democrats would have the edge, many analysts believe, if their nominee can stay competitive with Lingle on fundraising and if the presidential election generates a big turnout.
"Those are some pretty big ‘ifs,’" the local strategist said. "The money ‘if’ is huge to me."
Political analysts at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, in a paper last week, looked at the most closely competitive Senate races in presidential election years between 1980 and 2008. The analysts found that Senate candidates who were of the same political party as the presidential nominee who carried the state won 58 percent of the time.
Even if Obama were to lose on the mainland, the president would likely win comfortably in Hawaii.
"You’ll have a contrast between Hawaii’s native son being on the ballot — re-electing the president of the United States — and potentially the person who gave Sarah Palin’s nominating speech in 2008 at the Republican Convention," said Eric Schultz, the communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "That’s a contrast that we’d take any day of the week."
THOUGH LINGLE did act as a surrogate for Palin, the former Alaska governor and GOP vice-presidential nominee, and did question Obama’s local roots while campaigning for Republicans on the mainland, Republican strategists believe it will be a stretch for Democrats to portray Lingle as a right-wing ideologue.
Lingle, who supports abortion rights, is an advocate for alternative energy and significantly expanded health care coverage under the state’s version of Medicaid, governed mostly as a moderate. Her decision to veto a civil-unions bill may not track well with some independents, but she is likely more vulnerable over her handling of teacher furloughs and the decision to exempt the Hawaii Superferry from environmental review than any conservative ideological stance.
Lingle had the lowest job approval ratings of her two terms before she left office last year at the tail of a recession, but most local political analysts believed then, and still do now, that her ratings would likely improve over time and would not be a barrier if she seeks the Senate seat. The public’s perception of Lingle may also be influenced by how well people view Gov. Neil Abercombie’s performance over the next two years.
"I think she listens to people," said John Allan Peschong, a California-based GOP consultant who has worked on Lingle’s successful gubernatorial campaigns. "She understands where they’re coming from, not just on Oahu but on the neighbor islands as well. It gives her tremendous insights into what people go through on a daily basis and what their families go through."
A local Republican strategist, who declined to be identified for publication, said national Republican donors have already promised fundraising help well into the seven figures for a Lingle Senate campaign. If Lingle were to have a financial advantage over the Democratic nominee, it would feed into her other core political strength, which is her ability to craft and articulate a consistent message.
Andy Winer, who was Akaka’s campaign manager against Ed Case in the Democratic primary for the Senate in 2006, said Akaka’s early announcement gives potential Democratic candidates the time to organize their campaigns.
"They’ve got to go out and raise money. It may sound real simple, but I think that that’s a large part of the equation," he said, adding that Democrats have to plan for a contested primary and a general election.
One positive for Democrats, he said, is that the state has moved its primary to August from September to comply with a federal law to ensure that overseas voters get general election ballots in a reasonable time. He said the longer time between the primary and the November general election may help the nominee recharge and avoid a repeat of the governor’s race in 2002, when Mazie Hirono and Case drained their resources in the primary while Lingle was able to conserve.
But Winer believes Lingle — or any other Republican looking at the Senate race — will be "swimming upstream" with Obama on the ballot. "How do you deal with the fact that you’ve got a popular in-state president leading all of this?" he asked.
Senate Democrats have to defend more seats than Republicans next year, so unless Lingle — or another prominent Republican such as former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou — enters the race and puts up significant early fundraising numbers, Hawaii will likely not be in the top tier of priorities.
Dan Boylan, a retired University of Hawaii-West Oahu history professor, said it would be a mistake for Democrats to presume the seat is safe. Democrats have shown they can survive bloody primaries, national money may pour in to help keep the seat blue, but voters have heard a message of hope and change from Democrats in the past few elections.
"What if the hope and change isn’t realized?" he asked. "So, no, I don’t think it’s an easy win at all."