Former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle officially entered the race for Hawaii’s open Senate seat next fall. With Sen. Daniel Akaka (D) retiring, it means that this will be the first incumbent-less Senate race in 36 years. Only five people have represented Hawaii in the Senate since the territory was admitted to the Union as a state in 1960.
Despite the heavily Democratic nature of the state, Lingle was successful in winning two statewide elections. For most of her tenure, she was quite popular, as her landslide re-election victory in 2006 (62-35 percent) so indicates. Toward the end of her second term, however, her popularity ratings began to significantly sag. She left office with upside down job approval numbers and her early Senate race polling did not appear particularly promising.
Still, she is moving forward with another statewide campaign, one that will certainly be an uphill battle. Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI-2), with substantial backing from most of the Hawaii establishment, is the leading Democratic candidate. Former representative and Senatorial candidate Ed Case is also in the race. His fortunes have dropped, however, when he challenged Akaka in the Democratic primary six years ago, and then was unable to capture the open 1st Congressional District in an early 2010 special election. Case is a significant candidate, but he is clearly the underdog in the September primary. Though unlikely to occur, a bitterly competitive Democratic primary is exactly what Lingle will need to win next November. She must hope that the majority party vote will be split to the degree that a large chunk of Democratic voters will defect to her in the general election.
Linda Lingle’s candidacy is a break for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which needs the maximum number of competitive races to regain majority status in the Senate chamber. Ms. Lingle makes the race competitive, no doubt, but considering that favorite son Barack Obama will again be on the national ticket, she must be seen as a heavy underdog, at least in the early going. At the very least, the Hawaii Senate race must be rated as “Lean Democrat.”