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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Case, the Democrats & a shifting landscape

By David Shapiro

A hot topic of local political speculation is what will become of U.S. Rep. Ed Case if he loses his underdog challenge against U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka in the Sept. 23 Democratic primary.

Some think Case committed political suicide when he took on the 81-year-old Akaka and the Democratic establishment he represents and will become seriously damaged goods if he fails.

Others believe that Case, with his strong support among young voters, independents and newcomers, is the future of the Democratic Party win or lose.

Still other Democrats agree that Case will remain a major political player even if he loses, but worry that he'll bolt to the Republicans after the shabby treatment he's received by many mainstream Democrats.

It's all idle conjecture, of course; polls show that Case is still well within striking distance of Akaka, and he has a history of strong finishes in his campaigns.

But the continuing inability of Democrats to come to terms with the Case candidacy reveals much about the confused state of the party that has dominated Hawai'i politics for half a century.

Democrats have a shrinking base, lost the governorship in 2002 for the first time in 40 years to Republican Linda Lingle and likely won't win it back this year.

Yet, instead of reaching out to new voters they have to win over to project their power and ideals into the future, party leaders are tightly circling their wagons to fight off a generational change that must inevitably come.

At the state Democratic Convention in May, Case got a speaking slot far inferior to Akaka's, was berated from the podium by U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and was invited to leave the party by some delegates.

If old-line Democrats saw it as an overpowering show of support for Akaka, it came across to many voters as quite the opposite a desperate fear of Case and the ideas he espouses about reshaping the party's ideology and its relationships with special interests.

These Democrats don't seem to understand that the more they make Case feel unwelcome for his contrary views, the more they make Democratic voters who share his thinking feel similarly unwanted.

Case likely will survive a loss if he chooses to remain active in politics.

The kind of Democrats who resent his abrupt challenge of Akaka are a slowly vanishing breed, while those who like his independent message are a growing segment of the electorate.

The only other Democrats now on the scene who could match Case's stature in future races for senator or governor are Mayor Mufi Hannemann, the aging Abercrombie and possibly the winner of the race to succeed Case in the 2nd Congressional District if a Democrat wins.

It's not impossible that Case would switch parties, but it seems highly unlikely; he's always viewed his mission as modernizing the Democratic Party he believes in, not leaving it.

Increasingly in major races, Hawai'i's political center is breaking away from traditional party lines and coalescing around a moderate middle that embraces candidates from both parties with the right messages.

Just as Case refuses to vote the straight Democratic line and enjoys much Republican backing, Lingle says she won't put GOP interests ahead of the public interest and draws substantial Democratic support.

Hannemann, a Democrat who runs as a nonpartisan in city elections, attended rallies of both parties in his 2004 campaign and was pulled to a narrow victory over Duke Bainum by a late surge of Republican support.

Democrats can't stop the landscape from shifting; they can either adapt to it or ultimately be buried by it.

Read David Shapiro's daily blog at http://blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.