Hawaii Braces for Democratic Primary Clash

Posted April 17, 2011 at 2:08pm

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) has said she doesn’t have the “bloody primary” problem that Republicans face in races across the country, but she clearly was not referring to Hawaii’s Senate contest.

The roles are reversed in the Aloha State, home to some infamously competitive Democratic primaries in recent years and where former Gov. Linda Lingle looks to have a clear path to the GOP nomination if she runs.

Several Democrats are interested in replacing retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka, including the state’s two Congresswomen, Reps. Mazie Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa.

“I haven’t seen a race yet in Hawaii where there isn’t a Democratic primary,” Hanabusa told Roll Call in an interview from her Congressional office. “A race as important as this — many would consider you’re not going to have an opportunity like this again — you’re going to find there will be a lot of Democrats that are more than willing to step up to the plate.”

The opportunity is indeed rare. There have been only five Hawaiian Senators in the 52-year-old state’s history, and Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye has been in office nearly that entire time. Akaka was elected in 1990, succeeding just two Senators who held the seat for the previous 30 years.

Hanabusa told Roll Call that she is taking a serious look at the race and has set up an appointment with the DSCC. She said the committee has made it known it wants to speak with anyone interested in running, but it is not actively recruiting any one candidate.

“The primary consideration is always how to best serve Hawaii,” Hanabusa said of her decision-making process. “I don’t see making the decision immediately, but I do believe that it’s going to have to be made probably before the end of the year.”

Hirono also confirmed her interest in the race to Roll Call. “Many people have encouraged me to look at the race for U.S. Senate,” she said in an email. “I’m humbled by this encouragement and I am taking a careful look at it.”

Among the other Democrats considering bids are former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann and Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz. Meanwhile, former Rep. Ed Case, who has been in the middle of a few recent Democratic primary battles, this month became the first candidate to enter the race.

Case is shaking off two straight election losses and trying again to make it back to Washington, D.C. He and Hanabusa split the Democratic vote in the odd three-candidate special election last year in the 1st district to replace Neil Abercrombie, who is now governor, allowing Republican Charles Djou to win the Honolulu-based seat. Djou lost to Hanabusa in the November election for a full term.

In his 26 years in public office, Case has lost more elections than most have ever run in. He’s lost bids for state House, state Senate, House, Senate and governor, yet the 58-year-old is running again.

“I have not shied away from difficult races throughout my career,” Case told Roll Call in a phone interview from Hawaii.

Case ran for this same seat in 2006, leaving his Democratic-leaning district to challenge Akaka in the primary — a highly unpopular move that upset the local establishment, including Inouye.

Running in the unique political environment of the Hawaii islands, Case has been at once both the establishment choice of Washington and the opponent of the Hawaii Democratic establishment.

“Hawaii is going through a deep political, social, geographic and economic change that is leading a whole new generation of folks that didn’t grow up in the era of what is referred to as the Democratic machine,” Case said.

That machine helped propel Hirono over Case in a competitive three-way Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2002. Hirono went on to lose to Lingle by 5 points in the general election that November. Two months later, following the death of Rep. Patsy Mink (D), Case won a special election over several candidates, including Hanabusa, and began his first of two terms.

Case was in Washington the week before his April 10 announcement to meet with past and potential supporters, and he sat down with DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil. Case described their conversation as “good and realistic.”

Democrats in Washington and Hawaii are aware of Lingle’s two statewide gubernatorial victories and her past fundraising success, but they note her upside-down approval ratings in her last year in office and remain confident that with hometown hero President Barack Obama leading the ticket, the race remains strongly in their favor.

Lingle did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. A source close to her said she is very interested in the race but is doing her due diligence, calculating the risks and weighing the good and the bad.

Djou, who is Lingle’s friend and neighbor, told Roll Call in a phone interview that he has encouraged Lingle to run and that she is still expected to announce her intentions in June or July.

“Would she be OK being one of 100 after being the top executive?” Djou said, outlining one of the factors likely playing into her assessment of the race. “She told me before that her dream job was to be governor of Hawaii.”

While she has already achieved that, Hanabusa and Case both said they are working under the assumption that Lingle will run. They also both noted the uniqueness of Hawaii and how important it is to be willing to serve constituents from each island in all aspects of their lives.

“I must get more calls about potholes in Hawaii than I do about budgets or things like that,” Hanabusa said. “If they see you as their Representative, you’ve got to do that whole gambit. You have to serve the community.”