This upcoming election season is already showing U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye that he will not have the luxury of looking over the increasingly crowded field of replacements for Sen. Daniel K. Akaka and saying, "I pick this one."
Inouye doesn’t need a preference; he needs a winner. In terms of pure political power, what Inouye must have in November 2012 is a Democrat holding Hawaii’s second Senate seat.
Already there are calculations showing that Republicans can take over the Senate next year.
Democrats have much to lose, says Larry Sabato, political scientist and longtime Senate analyst. There are 23 Democratic senate seats up for election next year, with six rated as tossups.
According to early handicapping out of Washington, if three or four of those six races go to the GOP and everything else remains the same, the Senate could be split either 50-50 or move into the GOP column, along with the U.S. House.
And while Inouye will presumably continue on as president pro tempore, he will not be in the majority and will not head the Appropriations Committee.
Inouye’s seniority will not be diminished, but he would no longer enjoy the "I’ve got your back" relationship he had with the late Sen. Ted Stevens, who was Inouye’s go-to guy whenever he was in the minority.
Will Inouye have clout? Yes. Will he have as much as today? Big no.
Sabato, by the way, puts Hawaii in the Democratic "safe for now" column, but this calculation was done before Akaka announced his retirement.
"The Democratic bench is very strong and any Democrat will benefit from the massive percentage of the vote that President Barack Obama will undoubtedly secure in his native state," Sabato wrote.
All this is early, but Inouye knows that the smart guy who already has a plan is way ahead of all the other smart guys waiting for something to happen.
All the national calculations keep Hawaii in the Democratic blue column, but if former Gov. Linda Lingle runs, she will run with money, experience and standing in comparison to a state Democratic machine that appears unfocused at best.
Democratic political veteran and state Senate Vice President Donna Mercado Kim has formed an exploratory committee for a Senate campaign in a field that also already is likely to include former Mayor Mufi Hannemann and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case.
Already Democrat Rep. Mazie Hirono is rumored to be considering the run for the Senate. If she does go, there is speculation that it would tip freshman Rep. Colleen Hanabusa into the race. That would leave 75 percent of Hawaii’s congressional delegation with open seats.
It could bring about an era of political testing with unknown outcomes like Hawaii has not seen in generations.
Amidst all this, Inouye needs to find the winner. He backed Hanabusa in her congressional campaign, he was mildly supportive of Case when he first ran for governor, and he tentatively supported Hannemann in the last governor’s race. So he’s struck out two out of three times and can’t afford another wrong call.
Several polls are reportedly already in the field, but if next week you see Inouye staring up at the heavens, you’ll know he’s looking for a sign.
Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at email@example.com.