The announcement by Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii that he will not seek reelection creates the first open Senate seat in the Aloha State since 1990 and presents a rare opportunity for the GOP to take the seat if former Gov. Linda Lingle jumps into the race.
As The Cook Political Report wrote last week, Akaka was potentially vulnerable to a strong challenge. At 86, he had not done much to prepare for reelection; he had just $66,000 in cash on hand at the end of last year and seems to be slowing down. A challenge from Lingle or former Rep. Charles Djou would have been the most competitive general election contest that Akaka had faced in his long career.
It’s possible that Republicans would have been better off running against the incumbent, but could have a shot at the general election, particularly if Lingle runs.
In an interview last week with Hawaii public television show Island Insights, Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye was asked about the possibility of an Akaka retirement. He mentioned a number of potential candidates, while acknowledging that the party’s challenges would be to keep the primary field at a manageable size and work to avoid a divisive contest that could hurt the eventual nominee in the general election.
The names Inouye mentioned were: Reps. Mazie Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa, former Rep. Ed Case, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, and former Honolulu mayor and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Mufi Hannemann.
The most intriguing name on Inouye’s list is Tammy Duckworth, who is now a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although Duckworth ran for Congress in Illinois in 2006, she went to McKinley High School in Honolulu, where she has been inducted into the school’s Hall of Honor, and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Hawaii. As Inouye put it, “...she has legitimate footprints in Hawaii.”
It seems unlikely that Abercrombie can run since he was sworn in as the state’s new governor less than three months ago. A run might also be a risky proposition for Hanabusa since she was just elected to Congress in November. Freshmen House members have been able to win Senate seats, but it is very rare. The last time it happened was in 1996 when Kansas Republican Sam Brownback was elected to the Senate after serving just one term in the House. Case gave up his House seat in 2006 to challenge Akaka in the primary, losing that race by 10 points. He also made an unsuccessful bid for the House in a special election last year, but placed third. Schatz is new to his job as lieutenant governor, while Hannemann lost last year’s gubernatorial primary to Abercrombie by 21 points.
In sum, as a result of either the timing of Akaka’s retirement or past defeats, very few of the candidates on this list make ideal 2012 Senate candidates. Only Hirono is in a strong position to run, and Democratic operatives believe that she is in the race. Within hours of the announcement, Hirono already began making calls to line up support for a run. She finished 2010 with $216,506 in the bank. But, this also makes Inouye’s mention of Duckworth all the more interesting.
No race in Hawaii is ever easy for Republicans, and 2012, when favorite son President Obama will be at the top of the ballot, won’t be any different. At the same time, the prospect that Lingle may run prevents us from completely writing off the GOP’s chances here. She is well known and is a proven fundraiser. Until the candidate fields on both sides become clear, the race will stay in the “Solid Democratic” column, but a Lingle candidacy would force a move to a more competitive rating.