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Posted at 1:20 PM ET, 03/ 3/2011

The GOP's tough path in Hawaii

By Aaron Blake

Sen. Daniel Akaka's (D-Hawaii) announcement Wednesday that he will retire set off another set of alarm bells among campaign-watchers.

Republicans, all of a sudden, have another pickup opportunity in their quest to retake a Senate majority -- a fifth state where a Democrat or Democratic-caucusing independent has opted not to seek another term . And the GOP appears to have a candidate ready to carry the banner - a two-term former governor, no less.

But while all eyes are on recently departed governor Linda Lingle (R) as the most high-profile potential entrant into the race, we must remember few things about Hawaii.

First, this is Hawaii. In a presidential year. With the state's favorite son at the top of the ballot running for reelection as president. President Obama won 72 percent of the vote in the Aloha State in 2008, and there's little to suggest he won't approach that again.

You can bet that whatever Democrat emerges from a primary would be quick to latch on to the president, and Obama has shown showed plenty of willingness to engage in his place of birth, including in last year's governor's race when he endorsed and cut a TV ad for now-Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D).

Abercrombie's win tells us the second thing we need to know about the coming Senate race. While Lingle would almost certainly clear the GOP field, it will be very tough for Democrats to avoid a primary. That primary is the latest in the nation -- which never helps -- and it could be bruising.

The GOP was counting on a bruising Democratic primary in the governors' race in 2010, hoping a wounded Democratic nominee would pave the way for an upset. They got the tough primary, but the rest didn't quite pan out, with Abercrombie running away with a 58 percent-to-41 percent win over former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona (R).

Third, while Lingle was elected twice - including by a very big margin in a tough year in 2006 - she didn't leave office in particularly good stead. After battles with a Democratic legislature, a Ward Research poll in October 2010 showed 44 percent of Hawaiins approving of her performance and 51 percent disapproving.

Democrats also can point to a number of cases where Lingle was openly supportive of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) and opposed Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. The GOP trotted out Lingle as a campaign surrogate, and she at times vociferously defended Palin on issues ranging from her qualifications to Palin's quote that Obama was "palling around with terrorists."

Now, none of this is to say that Lingle wouldn't be formidable.

"I think when she does not have to fight a Democratic legislature and doesn't have all of the opposition, I think her general favorability would improve again," Ward Research president Rebecca Ward said in October. "She went in so strongly that I think she could recapture more of that."

Lingle is also the best fundraiser in the state and would probably have a significant financial advantage over whomever she faces. And that goes double if Democrats have a rough and tumble primary.

In that primary, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz has built a solid profile and may be a frontrunner. A former Obama campaign aide, he got the president's support when he ran for party chairman in 2008 and the support of the president's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, when he ran for lieutenant governor. Even if Obama doesn't publicly insert himself in the Democratic primary, this kind of thing matters.

But that doesn't mean he would have a clear path; after all, former Rep. Ed Case (D) has shown a willingness to buck the establishment, having run against Akaka in a primary in 2006. And there are myriad other contenders, including Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann, who lost the Democratic governor primary to Abercrombie.

The GOP basically has to hope that Lingle gets in and that Democrats shoot themselves in the foot.

Republicans aren't yet convinced that Lingle will even run, and the bench behind her isn't terribly deep. It includes former Rep. Charles Djou and Aiona - both losers in a very good year for Republicans in 2010.

Without Lingle, the GOP is probably sunk. With her, they have a chance.

It's arguably a better situation for Republicans than if Akaka were to run for reelection, but Democrats still have to be favored here.

By Aaron Blake  | March 3, 2011; 1:20 PM ET
 
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