Rivals for Senate seat gird for battle
|||Akaka vs. Case
Read up on the race between U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka and U.S. Rep. Ed Case
in the Democratic primary for the Senate in September.
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
Like an errant match that touches off a brushfire, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka's uncharacteristic criticism last week of U.S. Rep. Ed Case's vote for a tax cut supported by the White House may have been the unofficial start of the political season.
The U.S. Senate primary has been relatively quiet since Case announced in January that he would challenge Akaka, but political analysts expect that to change over the next several weeks, as both men appear at the state Democratic convention and do more to try to break through with voters.
With the session of the state Legislature now over, the candidates in other races also will begin to launch their campaigns in earnest, competing with Akaka and Case for news media and voter attention. The Senate race is expected to be the summer's prime draw, but the campaigns to replace Case in the U.S. House, the Democratic primary for governor, and the state House and Senate contests also could be compelling.
Political analysts and party activists predict the Senate race will increase voter turnout in the September primary, including among ethnic groups that do not always vote in large numbers, such as Hawaiians. Higher turnout in the primary could have an unpredictable spillover effect on the other races.
"I think the Case-Akaka vote is going to have a tremendous impact on all the other races," said former state Rep. Annelle Amaral, who recently was elected chairwoman of the O'ahu Democrats.
Over the past few months, Akaka and Case have been building their campaign infrastructures across the Islands. Akaka, given his age he is 81 and Senate schedule, has made selective appearances back home at fundraising and other events. Case has been back almost every weekend since his announcement, doing the kind of grassroots, retail politics he has been known for since he was elected to Congress four years ago.
On the same day Akaka criticized Case for his tax vote, the senator's campaign released its first statewide radio advertisements, two spots that discuss Akaka's background and accomplishments. The senator also took to the Senate floor last week in a daily plea for a vote on a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill, which Republican leaders have promised to schedule in early June.
EXPERIENCE VS. CHANGE
Akaka's campaign will focus on themes of wisdom, experience and results, but since the senator has not had a difficult campaign since he came to the Senate 16 years ago, his supporters are in the unusual position of reintroducing him to voters and defending his record. The personable Akaka excels at interacting with voters, but he may not be as physically comfortable as he once was with the island-hopping and media demands of a heated campaign.
"I think Danny's strength is his person-to-person relationships with people," said Wayne Yamasaki, Akaka's campaign chairman.
Andy Winer, Akaka's campaign manager, said the senator has not committed to any debates with Case but expects there will be opportunities for voters to compare the candidates side-by-side. Winer also said Akaka has been actively raising money, so he likely will continue to have a financial advantage over Case, which could give him more flexibility when it comes to political advertising.
Winer said Akaka's decision to contrast the tax vote the senator opposed the bill was to highlight the profound differences the two Democrats have on national issues. "We're starting to remind people what he has done and what he stands for," he said.
Several political analysts have said that Akaka's campaign has been slow to start, while Case has been more visible among voters.
"Congressman Case is game on right now," said Brickwood Galuteria, the state Democratic Party chairman. "And I think what we'll see is Senator Akaka start to rev up. I think even the mere fact that he has taken to the floor on the Akaka bill gives us a sense that he's picking up his pace."
Case said he is talking about four main themes with voters that there is a need to transition to new leadership, that as a moderate he is philosophically closer to the mainstream of the state than the liberal Akaka, that he can do a better job in the Senate, and that the establishment political culture in the Islands must change.
"This is essentially a referendum on the current political culture in Hawai'i, which I believe needs to change for Hawai'i's good," he said.
Case said he has not done any political advertising since some initial television spots after his January announcement. He said he would see how the campaign evolves before deciding on a media strategy, but thinks he has been able to reach voters so far without much advertising and might save his money until later in the campaign.
The congressman had said in January that he expected many voters to be angry after the shock of his announcement but believed over time they would accept it and think about his message. He said he understands that many Democrats have had a long relationship with Akaka and that it might be difficult for some to let go.
"I think people are out there talking about this and assessing us on a level playing field and they are making a decision," he said.
But Case said he is disappointed Akaka has refused to commit to debates. Case said that ideally, they should appear together at a series of forums statewide.
"Senator Akaka should absolutely welcome the opportunity to stand side-by-side with me and talk about the issues and talk about the similarities and the differences," Case said.
VYING FOR ATTENTION
Voters are beginning to compare. Jon Kirby, a Big Island homebuilder, said he agrees with Case's vote on the tax cut bill, which extends a lower capital gains tax rate and helps some upper-income families avoid the alternative minimum tax. But he said he otherwise supports Akaka.
"I am just barely eking out a living by building houses, which I consider doing a public good, and although I support the Democratic viewpoints on everything else, I am glad to not get hit with the hard taxes," Kirby wrote in an e-mail to The Advertiser. "I need that money to go back into the business as everything literally is getting more expensive."
Jim Moylan, who sells insurance in 'Ewa Beach, has not been satisfied with Akaka's performance. "I feel Ed Case is a strong contender," he wrote in an e-mail. "I'm ready for the change without even addressing the issues."
The Senate primary has the potential to overshadow the other political campaigns this year. In the Democratic primary to replace Case in the 2nd Congressional District, a half-dozen prominent candidates have entered the race. They include former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, former state Sen. Matt Matsunaga, state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, state Sen. Ron Menor, state Sen. Gary Hooser and state Rep. Brian Schatz.
The Republican primary slate is more contained, with state Sen. Bob Hogue and former state Rep. Quentin Kawananakoa.
Name recognition and money could be the ingredients that separate the candidates on the Democratic side, along with the ability to campaign effectively on the Neighbor Islands. Identity politics also could be a factor, as candidates look to gain from any natural affinity they might have among ethnic groups or with geography in a race that could be won with far less than 50 percent of the vote. The district covers Central, Leeward and Windward O'ahu and the Neighbor Islands.
"It's going to be very difficult for those people who don't have the name recognition in the district," said Don Clegg, a political consultant.
Some already have found it hard to get heard through the news media, mostly because fairness generally dictates that the major candidates are covered equally. A Matsunaga news conference on Friday about energy policy was ignored by much of the press. Neither the Advertiser nor the Honolulu Star-Bulletin covered a fundraiser last month for Schatz that featured former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
"I think that people are tired of the same-old, same-old, and they're looking for something different," Schatz said. "And you have to demonstrate that not only in what you say but in how you campaign. I don't believe that the standard formula applies here. There's just too many in the race, and voters are going to tune out those candidates who appear to be generic politicians running generic campaigns."
SEARCH FOR UNITY
With so many name-brand Democrats competing against each other, the majority party may have to be more creative in finding unifying themes at its convention on Memorial Day weekend in Waikiki.
Galuteria said the party's factions would be able to take all of the energy from the contested primaries and unite behind the winners including the Democratic nominee for governor and the state House and Senate candidates for the general election in November. Former state Sen. Randall Iwase and Wai'anae harbormaster William Aila, the two major Democrats running for governor, are both considered long shots against Republican Gov. Linda Lingle. But Democrats are projected to hold their majorities in the Legislature.
Galuteria said internal conflict is no surprise. Many Democrats still believe they lost the governor's race to Lingle in 2002 because they could not agree on a front-runner after former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris chose not to run.
"We're not Stepford politicians. We have our own thoughts," Galuteria said. "We pass out our membership cards and our boxing gloves."
State Republicans, who also will hold their convention on Memorial Day weekend in Waikiki, are zeroing in on keeping Lingle at Washington Place and taking advantage of the rare open seat in the 2nd Congressional District. Republicans have learned to avoid rash predictions after 2004 when the party claimed it might take control of the state House but have been carefully mapping more realistic plans to pick up a handful of state House and Senate seats.
President Bush's low approval ratings have put many Republicans on the back foot nationally, but Lingle enters the political season with popularity, money, and distance from the GOP's setbacks of 2004, when Republicans lost House seats. The governor and Democratic leaders disagreed this legislative session on how much of a budget surplus should be used for tax relief, but their collaboration on energy, affordable housing and, to a lesser extent, school repair leaves few wedge issues that could be exploited during the campaign.
Instead, Democrats will likely try to tie Lingle to Bush as much as possible.
"I think the Republican Party is in a strong position to win not only the governor's seat but the congressional seat as well," said Sam Aiona, the state GOP chairman.
While Republicans are hoping a bench-clearing primary might soften the Democrats, some Democrats believe the party will grow stronger.
Randy Perreira, the deputy executive director of the Hawai'i Government Employees Association, said Case has started a discussion on age and leadership transition through his challenge to Akaka. Similar themes are surfacing in the campaign featuring PBS Hawai'i executive Mike McCartney and former O'ahu Democratic chairman Jimmy Toyama to replace Galuteria as party chairman.
A Case victory clearly would rattle the party's establishment, which has lined up behind Akaka.
But Perreira said the Democrats who want to replace Case in Congress all philosophically share the party's ideals such as worker protection and greater access to healthcare and likely will not take Democrats on a new course.
"I think everybody will find it very easy to unify come November," Perreira said.
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.