Hawaii Senate: A Referendum on Iraq?
Any regular reader of The Fix knows that the Connecticut primary between Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and wealthy businessman Ned Lamont is shaping up as a referendum on the war in Iraq.
Lieberman's unstinting support for the conflict has led to considerable unrest among the party's liberal base, who are lining up behind the antiwar Lamont in hopes of toppling a titan. (Lamont is up with three television ads in advance of this weekend's state convention.)
But, few political junkies -- even true Fix fanatics -- are likely aware that a similar situation is playing out in Hawaii's Democratic primary between Sen. Daniel K. Akaka and U.S. Rep. Ed Case. In that contest, Akaka is touting his vote against the 2002 use-of-force resolution while Case has said he would likely have supported it had he been in Congress at the time.
"I believe our country cannot tolerate the combination of the leadership of another country sworn to do us harm and weapons of mass destruction," Case said in an interview this afternoon. He added that Akaka's vote against the use-of-force measure was a "mistake at that time."
Unlike Connecticut, the Iraq war is not the lone (or even the most important) issue in the race, but it will almost certainly play a key role in voters' minds as they head to the polls.
Let's take a closer look at this under-the-radar contest.
Akaka has held elected office in Hawaii for 30 years. He served in the U.S. House from 1976 to 1990, when he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Sen. Spark Matsunaga, who had died in May of that year. Akaka won a full six-year term in 1994 with 72 percent and coasted to a 73 percent reelection in 2000.
As a result, Case caught much of the political establishment (not to mention The Fix) by surprise when he announced he would challenge Akaka in the state's Sept. 23 primary. In retrospect, though, Case's candidacy is not particularly suprising given the arc of his career.
In 2002, he challenged Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono in the state's Democratic gubernatorial primary, running as a reformer and attacking the party establishment, which was firmly behind Hirono. After losing to Hirono by two points, Case quickly jumped into the special election for the 2nd District caused by the death of Rep. Patsy Mink (D).
There were actually two specials -- the first to fill the remaining five weeks of Mink's term, the other to hold the seat in the following Congress. In the former race, the establishment wanted to clear the way for Mink's widowed husband, John, as a memorial to her. Case refused to play ball and defeated John Mink. He went on to win the second election in early 2003 easily.
Case makes no secret that this race is in keeping with his efforts to wrest control of the party from the Democratic machine. "Senator Akaka is the product of a political culture that has been in place in Hawaii for 50 years," Case said. "At one time it served Hawaii well. Today it is not serving Hawaii well.
That call for change is at the center of Case's challenge to Akaka. The challenger has cast the race as a generational choice -- Akaka will be 82 on Election Day; Case will be 54.
The Akaka campaign views the senator's seniority as an argument in his favor. "In the Senate it's all about seniority," said Elise Yadao, communications director for the Akaka campaign. "Both of our senators are in good health and their ability to serve is not a question."
Case responded that with both Akaka and the widely revered Sen. Daniel K. Inouye in their 80s, the time is now to begin grooming younger representation. "We need to layer the seniority," Case said. Implicit in Case's argument is that Inouye is considerably more effective for the state than Akaka, an argument bolstered by Time Magazine, which recently named him one of the five worst senators.
Even Akaka's campaign admitted that there is considerable work to be done to ensure that the people of the state are made aware of Akaka's accomplishments. "He hasn't had to campaign in 16 years and people need to refresh themselves again with how much this man has done," said Yadao. Even Akaka's radio ads, which began running last week, make clear the level of re-introduction that needs to be done. One of the two ads walks listeners through Akaka's biography; a second describes him as "rarely in the spotlight but always hard at work behind the scenes."
The race appears to be a dead heat at the moment. A QMark Research & Polling survey conducted for the Case campaign showed Akaka with a narrow 40 percent to 38 percent lead over Case. While the poll has some methodological issues (it was in the field for more than two weeks, an unusually long time), the Akaka campaign has not responded by releasing any polling of their own, although they have acknowledged they had done a survey. It's safe to assume that if the Akaka camp had numbers that differed widely from those released by Case, they would have been made public immediately.
That does not mean Akaka does not have advantages of his own going into the primary -- notably his financial edge. At the end of March, Akaka had $868,000 on hand to Case's $266,000. In the first three months of 2006, Akaka raised $352,000 to Case's $346,000 -- $185,000 of which came in the form of a transfer from his House account. Case admitted that his D.C. fundraising has been negatively affected by the establishment's support for Akaka but added that he plans to use Akaka's funding sources as a symbol of the "spiderwebs [Akaka] is entangled in." That message could work, but without adequate financing the voters of Hawaii may not hear Case's voice.
The biggest question mark in the Hawaii primary is how the Iraq war will play -- especially considering that there is no
voter party registration in Hawaii as well as an open primary, meaning that self-identifying Democrats, independents and Republicans can vote in the Akaka-Case primary if they so choose.
To hear the Akaka side tell it, Case's alleged support for the war will be a major stumbling block for many primary voters. "There is an extreme difference in their positions on the war," said Yadao.
For his part, Case said that describing him as favoring the war is "a tremendous oversimplification" of both the issue and his position. Case said that while it would have been easy for him to simply say he would have voted against the use-of-force resolution, it would not have been the principled stand. He uses that same appeal to basic principles to justify his belief that setting a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is a mistake.
"Senator Akaka has never committed or confirmed what he implies, which is that he supports unilateral, precipitous withdrawal," Case added.
Make sure to add Hawaii to your watch list of contested Democratic primaries. The results from Connecticut -- set for Aug. 8 -- and Hawaii should give us some strong hints about the mood of the electorate when it comes to Iraq and the midterm elections.
May 18, 2006; 4:23 PM ET
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