Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) announced Wednesday he will not seek re-election in 2012, becoming the fifth senator who caucuses with the Democrats -- and the seventh overall -- to announce their retirement this cycle.
"After months of thinking about my political future, I am announcing today that I have decided not to run for re-election in 2012. As many of you can imagine, it was a very difficult decision for me. However, I feel that the end of this Congress is the right time for me to step aside. It has been a great honor and privilege to serve the people of Hawaii," Akaka said in a statement. "In 2006, the people of Hawaii gave me an opportunity to continue my service in the United States Senate and I fully intend to serve the last two years of my term in office."
Akaka's announcement comes amid a broader effort by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Patty Murray to push wavering incumbents to make quick decisions about re-election.
"Senator Akaka has served this country with distinction for his entire adult life. All Americans are grateful for his service. He will be missed, but Democrats will absolutely keep his seat," Murray said in a statement.
Akaka's slow fundraising pace coupled with his age -- he will turn 87 this year -- have caused many observers in recent weeks to question whether he would run again. In a local interview last week, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) even warned that he would not be able to offer Akaka as much help this cycle as he has in the past.
Democrats have a deep bench in the state, and there are several candidates who may be interested in running for the seat, including former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, Reps. Mazie Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa and former Rep. Ed Case, among others.
In his recent local interview, Inouye listed the names above, as well as Gov. Neil Abercrombie
and Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth
-- who went to high school in Hawaii -- as possibilities for the race.
On the Republican side, former Gov. Linda Lingle
would be the obvious frontrunner if she enters the race. In November, Lingle said she would take six months before deciding whether she would run, but Akaka's decision to step aside only makes it more likely that she will enter the race.
Democrats have a 34 point registration advantage in Hawaii, and with President Obama
-- who is viewed very positively in the state he grew up in -- on the top of the ballot in 2012, the party appears to be in good position to hold on to the seat. If Lingle should enter the race, her high name identification across the state and ability to fundraise could cause some concern for Democrats as they seek to hold on to the seat. Still, it will be very tough for Lingle -- or any Republican -- to pickup the seat.
"Danny spent his career fighting for our troops, veterans and their families and for the rights of Native Hawaiians. He worked tirelessly to reform Wall Street and to make sure that consumers and small business owners are treated fairly in our system," said Obama in a statement Wednesday evening. "His voice in the Senate will be missed. Michelle and I would like to join the people of Hawai'i in saying 'mahalo' to Danny for his lifetime of service and offer both him and Millie our best wishes for the future."
Former Republican Rep. Charles Djou, who all but swore off politics after losing re-election last year, could be another possibility
for the GOP. But when asked about a possible run Wednesday, Djou told Politico
, "I currently have no plans to run for political office."
But Republicans expressed optimism on Wednesday about their chances.
"With several strong candidates already looking at this race, even before Senator Akaka's announcement, Hawaii presents an unexpected opportunity for Senate Republicans and we intend to make the most of it in 2012," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Brian Walsh
This post was updated at 9:00 p.m.