Monday, August 14, 2006

Hawai'i U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

August 14, 2006
85 Days Until Election Day

Hawai’i U.S. Senate
Status: Democrat Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (West)

Outlook: Safe Democrat

A ho-hum contest for the U.S. Senate in Hawai’i, in which incumbentDemocrat Daniel Akaka was expected to cruise to reelection over little if any opposition, was suddenly thrown for a loop when Congressman Ed Case announced that he would seek to oppose Akaka in the Democrat primary. Case’s rationale subtly seemed to be that Akaka had become less than energetic in office and that since he and his senior colleague Daniel Inouye, who will both turn 82 next month, might possibly not live throughout the remainder of any future term, the state would wind up with a U.S. Senator, appointed by the popular Republican Governor Linda Lingle. This is in spite of the fact that the law in Hawai’i now seems to demand that the Governor appoint a U.S. Senator of the same party from which the person whose seat it was belonged to.

Nobody really saw this Case maneuver coming and it had raised several very interesting questions about this race. While the end result was always that it was very likely that a Democrat would hold the seat, there are several factors to now consider.

Some had theorized that the ambitious Case had pushed ahead thinking that Akaka would get the message and decide not to seek another term. However, the Democrat establishment in both Hawai’i and Washington D.C. quickly rallied around Akaka, whom conventional wisdom had as a solid favorite to win the primary matchup. Some, like Hawai’i’s other Congressman, Neil Abercrombie, who had been waiting his own turn to run for the U.S. Senate in the Aloha State have voiced a bit of resentment against Case for taking such a blatantly aggressive move and the DSCC has stepped in to say that they will support their incumbent Senator in this race.

Race and ethnicity are also factors as Akaka is one of just a handful of non-white U.S. Senators and the only Member of Congress to ever come from Native Hawaiian ancestry. Case is white and is running for office in a majority minority state has not elected a caucasian to the U.S. Senate in several decades.

For those who will be focusing on the issues, there are indeed some differences between the candidates as Akaka voted against the Iraq War, while Case had been seen during his initial campaign for Congress as being more generally supportive of the mission. All in all, Case is viewed as being somewhat more moderate than Akaka who comes from the traditional, old school liberal wing of the Hawai’i Democrat Party even though Case is an opponent of drilling for oil in ANWR while Akaka and Inouye both have consistently voted in favor of it.

For his part, Case announced his candidacy by taking the odd tact of saying that he did not have any problems with Akaka’s voting record but that people might have concerns with his stamina and even his likelihood of completing another six year term and thus Case believes he is needed to prevent a Republican or even a quasi-Republican from eventually becoming a U.S. Senator through appointment and tha tit would be crucial for another Democrat to start building up seniority as soon as possible.

In a state where incumbents tend to almost always be reelected and Akaka’s seniority in Washington is indeed considered very important; the initial thought was that Case might have made a serious career blunder as Akaka appeared to be energized by the primary challenge. Some speculated that there would be greater pressure on Case to be the one to drop out of before the filing deadline. However both Akaka and Case have stuck to their guns and to the surprise of many, Case is now in a virtual dead heat with Akaka in Democrat primary polls, and Akaka might be in serious danger of being the second veteran Democrat Senator to be defeated in a primary this year.

As for the Republicans, the most prominent GOP politicians in the state all passed on the race, including the Governor and Lt. Governor (who had been running for reelection) and some other promising figures in the party who instead decided to try for Case’s open House seat. It has to be said that Hawai’i Republicans have missed out by not fielding a strong candidate and attempting to try to take some advantage from the contentious battle brewing among the Democrats in the state. Considering the racial aspect of a caucasian Democrat possibly defeating an Asian-Pacific incumbent, a minority Republican could have been hypothetically been even more intriguing to voters in the aftermath of the Democrat primary.

There was some moderate enthusiasm among the state's Republican establishment when Jerry Coffee, a 72 year old retired Navy Captain, and former Vietnam War POW, who is white, announced his candidacy. However, earlier this month, Coffee underwent emergency heart surgery and “suspended” his campaign. At this point, it is very unclear if Coffee could resume a campaign after the September primary, if he were to happen to be nominated by absentia, but any chance that Coffee might have had would seem to now be gone, especially considering that the key component of the Akaka vs. Case main event are concerns about age and health. A Rasmussen Reports poll released last week shows both Democrats way in front of Coffee, but interestingly enough, the Republican runs 14 points closer to the incumbent Akaka than he does against the challenger Case. That seems to be a sign that many Republicans in the state have made the decision that Case would be their best option. The other Republicans seeking the nomination would all be considered nothing more than sacrificial pigs at the political luau, which what was the expected situation for the GOP anyway before Case threw everyone for a loop.

So, with Republicans focusing on maintaining and furthering their recent gains on other races in the state, they may be left wondering “what if”, especially if the Democrat primary turns nasty and the party finds it hard to unite afterwards. If Akaka is to win renomination, it will be with the assistance of the state and national party establishment who would want to protect a party stalwart and also not have to deal with the symbolism of the loss of one of the most prominent Asian Pacific politicians in the country, and the backlash that such an event could have hypothetically cause in the state. However, there does not seem to be much of an effort among national “netroots” movements in the party to save Akaka from going down to defeat against an opponent who would perhaps vote slightly more often with the GOP.

If Akaka is victorious, any damage done by Case in regards to causing concerns in the voters’ minds about age and stamina will not be a factor against a token Republican effort in the general election and he will win the right to serve a fourth full term. If Case is victorious, he will be poised to serve in the upper body of Congress for quite a while, and his big roll of the political ambition dice will have paid off quite nicely.

Hawai’i GOP link:

2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 5 D, 1 R
Predicted post-election Balance of Power thus far: 32 D, 41 R