Stuart Rothenberg, the political analyst behind The Rothenberg Political Report, explained in a column in Roll Call this week why he has not joined others in rating the Hawaii U.S. Senate race a tossup.
He believes former Gov. Linda Lingle, the leading Republican, has political skills but too high a hurdle to climb in a traditionally Democratic state with Hawaii-born President Barack Obama also on the ballot for re-election.
My skepticism about Lingle, 58, has nothing to do with her candidate skills or political appeal.
Any Republican who can win two terms as governor in Hawaii obviously has political savvy and knows how to connect with voters. When she was re-elected in 2006, an absolutely horrible year for Republicans, Lingle drew more than 62 percent of the vote.
Nor is money a major issue. Lingle, who served eight years as mayor of Maui before she narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid in 1998, showed more than $1.4 million in the bank at the end of December, about $350,000 more than her likely general election opponent, Rep. Mazie Hirono (D), and far more than Hirono’s chief adversary for the Democratic nomination, ex-Rep. Ed Case.
Lingle’s problem is that no Republican has won a Hawaii Senate race in more than 40 years, and the last Republican to win a statewide federal election was Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The odds against any Republican running statewide are enormous, and President Barack Obama’s presence on the ticket doesn’t help her prospects. He won 72 percent of the vote last time, and while his numbers might slide, Lingle will need to get the votes of at least 100,000 Hawaiians who vote for Obama for president. That’s not impossible, but it places a heavy burden on her.
Lingle was able to win statewide in spite of her party. Now, she’ll be running in a federal race in a presidential year, when partisanship runs high. And like Mike Sullivan and Kathy Karpan, popular statewide Democratic officials in Wyoming in the 1990s, Inez Tenenbaum, a popular Democratic statewide official in South Carolina more than a dozen years ago, and Bill Weld, a one-time successful Massachusetts Republican governor, Lingle is likely to find the jump from a state race to a federal contest quite challenging.
So, while Lingle is a serious candidate and her candidacy certainly deserves watching, she faces a very difficult task. And that’s why the Rothenberg Political Report rates the Hawaii Senate race as Lean Democrat. (Roll Call also rates the contest as Leans Democratic.)