Democrat Daniel Inouye has represented Hawaii in the U.S. Senate for nearly 48 years, and Republican Cam Cavasso thinks that’s long enough.
Cavasso is in what some think is the unenviable and impossible position of challenging the re-election of Inouye, Hawaii’s most influential politician. Cavasso even poked fun at his own chances this summer in a humorous television ad that labeled his candidacy as “crazy.”
But in Inouye, the longest-serving Senate incumbent, Cavasso faces the chairman of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee who enjoys the backing of major Hawaii interest groups. Inouye also has won eight straight elections with an average of 75 percent of the vote and has a nearly 25-to-1 edge in campaign contributions this year.
Neither the state nor national Republican parties are expending much effort to derail Inouye, and Cavasso has been left hoping his candidacy catches on some other way.
“Yes, I realize he’s the longest sitting senator in the United States. Yes, I realize he’s head of the appropriations committee,” Cavasso said. “He is the opposite from me on almost every issue, value and principle. And I believe the nation must turn back to values and principles which made us strong.”
At 86, Inouye appears unperturbed by Cavasso, whom he defeated in 2004 by 52 percentage points. In TV ads that refer to him simply as “Dan,” the senator is said to be “working” for Hawaii’s transportation, high-tech economy, education and other needs.
And the senator makes no apologies for bringing home as much federal money as he can, despite Republican insistence that the U.S. government taxes and spends too much — a stance Inouye calls a “nice gimmick.”
“I always ask them, ‘Where do we spend too much? For the East-West Center? For the University of Hawaii? For the military?'” Inouye said in an interview last week.
“They tell us, ‘Cut taxes, cut taxes.’ … So I say, ‘What programs do you propose we cut? Social Security and Medicare?’ Well, not me,” he said.
Cavasso, a 60-year-old farmer and financial analyst, particularly cited the 2008 bailouts of Wall Street firms and General Motors, which were backed by then-Republican President George W. Bush.
Cavasso also opposes congressionally directed spending, known as earmarks, saying he would sponsor no such provisions if elected.
“It violates the principle of a balanced budget,” he said, noting that the message of his TV ad earlier this year was to assert how “crazy” the country’s financial condition is now.
Cavasso acknowledges he’s getting little help from state and national Republican groups that are shoveling money into GOP campaigns in Hawaii for governor and the 1st Congressional District.
He has raised about $220,600 since January 2009; more than $136,000 of that came from his own pocket.
Inouye, on the other hand, has raised $5.2 million over the last six years, almost a third of which was contributed by political action committees representing military contractors, transportation firms, labor unions and other interests.
He is revered in the state and wields similar clout in the Senate, where as head of the appropriations committee he has enormous control over what federal money is spent where.
With so many years in political office, Inouye said he still enjoys the Senate and wants to continue serving. “I want to, maybe for another term, and I hope that someone is prepared to take over,” he added.
Asked if that was a declaration that a ninth term will be his last, he said, “No, no, no. That’s the most foolish thing a politician can say.”