- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2011

The retirement of four-term Sen. Daniel K. Akaka is likely to force Democrats, already facing a slew of tough races next year, to gear up for another battle in a state where they haven’t lost a Senate race in more than 30 years — deep-blue Hawaii.

Mr. Akaka’s decision late Wednesday has already set off a scramble among up-and-comers in the state’s Democratic Party, where there could be as many as six legitimate candidates looking to replace the 86-year-old senator in a state where incumbents tend to stay on the job for a very long time.

That free-for-all, Republicans and pundits say, could create an opportunity for Hawaii’s biggest GOP name, former Gov. Linda Lingle, who has already expressed interest in the race.

Mrs. Lingle, who finished her second term in December, is “absolutely the heavyweight” among the state’s Republicans, said Chad Blair, who reports on Hawaii politics for the online news site civilbeat.com. “She is by far the Republican front-runner,” he said.

The former governor, who raised her national profile with a prime-time speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention praising vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, won both of her gubernatorial races handily — the second term, in 2006, with 63 percent of the vote.

Another Republican eyeing the race is former Rep. Charles Djou, though his decision may hinge on Mrs. Lingle’s decision. Mr. Djou pulled off a surprise Republican win in the special congressional election in 2010 when two Democratic rivals split the vote, then lost the seat in the general election.

“I’d be very surprised if he decides to challenge her,” Mr. Blair said.

The Democratic side of the primary, though, could get bloody, Mr. Blair said. “You could have a very wounded nominee come out of the primary.”

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat and also 86, offered a short list recently of potential successors in the party, including first-term Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, former Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann.

Since statehood, Hawaiians have sent only one Republican to the Senate — Hiram Fong, who served from 1959 to 1977.

Losing Hawaii would be a big blow for Democrats. President Obama won his home state with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2008, and the state’s unions and Democratic Party leaders have dominated state politics since the 1960s.

But the emergence of Mrs. Lingle, 57, and Mr. Djou, 40, give Republicans a real shot next year, GOP officials in Washington say.

“The retirement of yet another longtime Democrat senator further expands the map of takeover opportunities and further strengthens Republican hopes for a new Senate majority in 2012,” the National Republican Senate Campaign said in a statement. “Hawaii presents an unexpected opportunity for Senate Republicans, and we intend to make the most of it.”

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