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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Can Democrats hold the line?

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Democrats who were fearful they would lose several seats this year in the state Legislature are now more optimistic after analyzing the September primary returns. But strategists for both major parties still believe the political climate in November could trend Republican in state House and Senate districts.

Democrats have more open seats to defend, and projections for low voter turnout and an energetic re-election campaign by Republican Gov. Linda Lingle could leave Democrats at risk. Democrats also worry that Republicans will have more campaign money available for direct-mail outreach to voters in potential swing districts and could benefit indirectly from heavy advertising by Lingle.

Democrats are likely to keep their veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, so the balance of power is not at stake, but even marginal changes in the political makeup of the Legislature could have consequence.

If Democrats hold the line or gain seats in November they can more convincingly argue they have a voter mandate for their policy agenda next session even if Lingle is re-elected. If Republicans gain seats they will recapture some of the ground they have lost over the past six years and, if Lingle wins another term, give her more of a presence inside the Legislature.

Traffic, housing, education and crime will likely be issues that have the most resonance statewide, but House and Senate races can often turn on neighborhood concerns or which candidates are the most effective at connecting with voters.

The parties will probably target two Senate races and more than a dozen House races, but will offer some strategic help and get-out-the-vote operations that could benefit all of their candidates.

"You just have to walk the walk and talk the talk. It's sweat equity," said House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Wilhelmina Rise), who said Democrats are concerned about complacency after such an exhausting primary.

House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan, R-32nd (Aliamanu, Airport, Mapunapuna), said Republicans have learned from 2004 when they lost five seats after predicting a House takeover that the priority is to protect their incumbents and set achievable goals for open seats and swing districts.

"I do think there is an opportunity for us to gain seats," she said.

The outlook for the November elections could change over the next few weeks, especially if the races at the top of the ballot governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House catch fire and drive voter turnout. But, absent that, interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers and party strategists found similar predictions.

DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY

Democrats hold a 20 to 5 majority over Republicans in the Senate and a 41 to 10 advantage in the House. Democrats might lose a Senate seat in November, which could influence an internal leadership fight, but are concentrating more on the House, where six of eight open seats were held by Democrats and a few Democratic incumbents are vulnerable (see chart).

Some party strategists believe that many Democrats are spent from the primary dominated by U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka's victory over U.S. Rep. Ed Case and may not have the incentive to vote.

With Akaka favored over state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, R-50th (Kailua, Mokapu), for Senate and Lingle the clear front-runner over former Mililani state Sen. Randall Iwase for governor, the most competitive race at the top may be in the 2nd Congressional District between former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono and state Sen. Bob Hogue, R-24th (Kailua, Kane'ohe). But few predict Hirono or Hogue will be much of a draw on their own.

With no presidential race and no magnetic statewide race, voter turnout may fall below the 67 percent of 2004 and could drop lower than the 57 percent in 2002. Lower turnout generally favors incumbents. This year, however, it could also help Republican state House and Senate candidates in open seats or swing districts if Lingle draws out more Republicans and independents and many Democrats stay home.

House Democrats were anticipating a correction this year after their good fortune in 2004, when a late surge by the party for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry over President Bush in the presidential race brought more Democrats out and helped the party capture the five House seats.

Over the summer, some Democrats feared they could lose between five and 10 House seats this year. But party strategists now believe their candidates in the open seats are stronger than expected and that Republicans may have missed chances to field better contenders in potential swing districts such as Maunawili, Mililani and Kahala.

House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawa), said Democrats might even gain if the establishment, union and progressive activists who were so involved in the primary come back again in November.

"We would be able to retain what we have and even pick up a few more seats," he said.

REPUBLICAN OPTIMISM

Lingle has not been able to transfer her own popularity to other Republicans, but even without coattails, the political map this year gives the GOP several openings. Republicans are favored or competitive in open Senate races and most open House races that are considered toss-ups in districts now held by Democrats.

Lingle will campaign with some Republican candidates, and her television commercials and get-out-the-vote efforts may help Republicans down the ballot. Some party strategists also caution against underestimating the ability of Thielen and Hogue to bring out Republican and independent voters.

"They (voters) will see that the Lingle accomplishments will be even greater in the next term if she has more help in the Legislature," said Sam Aiona, the GOP chairman.

The governor received some criticism within the party after 2004 for not doing more to help Republican incumbents, but the losses were more likely related to the Kerry tide than to poor strategy. Fewer Republican incumbents are thought to be vulnerable this year and the ones who are being targeted by Democrats are either battle-tested or are from districts that trend Republican. Party strategists also believe they have competitive candidates for the open seats.

"We're really optimistic," said Eliza Talbot, a GOP campaign coordinator. "I think the open seats play in our favor."

LEADERSHIP CHANGES

The election results could influence House and Senate leadership for the next session. Insiders in the House predict Say will likely not be threatened as speaker unless Democrats are hit with heavy losses. But others note that Say's leadership was challenged after the 2004 elections when the party picked up seats and that several younger Democrats have wanted to take the House in a more ambitious policy direction.

In the Senate, the leadership team has been fractured since a failed coup against Senate President Robert Bunda, D-22nd (North Shore, Wahiawa), at the end of the 2005 session. Several Senate Democrats have said privately they doubt Bunda will serve as president for another session, but the factions have been unable to agree on an alternative.

Bunda will have to find a new alliance since his faction lost Sen. Brian Kanno, D-19th (Kapolei, Makakilo, Waikele), to retirement and may not have the votes to stay in power.

Sen. Shan Tsutsui, D-4th (Kahului), whom Bunda campaigned against in the primary, has publicly said the president should be replaced. "I think the sentiment is that it's time for a change," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai), who has been friendly to Bunda, said the leadership struggle appears to be more about personal power than policy.

"The Senate dissidents have been saying they want to change leadership for several years, but where they run into problems is when it comes time to put together a leadership team they can't agree," he said.

• • •

LEGISLATIVE ELECTION BATTLEGROUNDS

Party strategists have identified some of the most competitive state House and Senate races in November. Democrats are expected to keep control of both chambers, but the election could influence internal leadership and determine which party has momentum.

State Senate

Open seats:

Senate District 24 (Kailua, Kane'ohe). Senate researcher Keoki Leong (R) and Jill Tokuda (D), the governmental affairs director for a recycling company, square off in a district that trends Republican but could be intensely competitive. Status: Leans Republican.

Senate District 19 (Kapolei, Makakilo). Former Honolulu City Councilman Mike Gabbard (R) has done solid field work in the district for months and has an advantage in name recognition over retired police captain George Yamamoto (D). Status: Leans Republican.

Current: Democrats, 20; Republicans, 5.

Outlook: Republicans could pick up a seat but the drama will be over who Democrats choose as president.

State House

Incumbents at risk:

House District 44 (Nanakuli, Honokai Hale). Rep. Michael Kahikina (D) barely held off legislative aide Karen Awana (R) in 2002 and 2004 and faces her again. Status: Leans Democrat.

House District 46 (Kahuku, North Shore, Schofield). Rep. Michael Magaoay (D) narrowly beat Neighborhood Board member Carol Philips (R) in 2002 and 2004, and they have another rematch. Status: Leans Democrat.

House District 40 (Makakilo, Kapolei, Royal Kunia). Rep. Mark Moses (R) earned more votes in the primary than any House Republican candidate in the state. But Democrats believe attorney Sharon Har (D) could be formidable in this growing district. Status: Leans Republican.

House District 27 (Liliha, Pu'unui). Rep. Corinne Ching (R) is a frequent target in a district friendly to Democrats. Attorney and Neighborhood Board member Sesnita Moepono (D) could make it close. Status: Leans Republican.

House District 23 (Waikiki, Ala Moana, Kaka'ako). Rep. Anne Stevens (R) was appointed by the governor and barely escaped the primary in a district favorable to Republicans. Party activist Tom Brower (D) has been campaigning since January. Status: Leans Republican.

House District 13 (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i). Rep. Mele Carroll (D) was appointed by the governor and faces retired fire chief and former state Rep. Ron Davis (R) in a potential swing district. Status: Leans Democrat.

House District 28 (Iwilei, Downtown, Makiki). Rep. Bev Harbin (D), a controversial appointee, lost in the primary, setting up attorney and legislative aide Karl Rhoads (D) against computer consultant and legislative aide Collin Wong (R). Wong narrowly lost to former state Rep. Ken Hiraki in 2004. Status: Tossup.

House District 10 (W. Maui). Rep. Kam Tanaka (D) fell in the primary. Angus McKelvey (D), an executive for a publishing and graphics firm, is up against Ben Azman (R), a family physician, in this potential swing district. Status: Tossup.

Open seats:

House District 4 (Puna). Corrections officer Faye Hanohano (D) faces safety coordinator Brian Jordan (R) in a fast-growing district that still trends Democrat. Status: Leans Democrat.

House District 11 (S. Maui). AARP activist Tony Fisher (R) and nonprofit director Joe Bertram III (D) are competing in a district favorable to Republicans. Status: Tossup.

House District 15 (Lihu'e, Koloa). Kaua'i County Councilman James Tokioka (D) faces architect Ron Agor (R) in a district favorable to Democrats. Status: Tossup.

House District 16 (Po'ipu, Waimea, Ni'ihau). Planning coordinator Roland Sagum III (D) and vacation counselor JoAnne Georgi (R) are the candidates in a district that trends Democrat. Status: Tossup.

House District 17 (Hawai'i Kai, Kalama Valley). Peace Corps volunteer and former state Rep. Gene Ward (R) is out for a comeback against legal consultant A.J. Halagao (D) in bedrock GOP territory. Status: Leans Republican.

House District 25 (Makiki, Tantalus). Senate attorney Della Belatti (D) is up against state policy analyst Tracy Okubo (R) in a district both parties have circled as a target. Status: Tossup.

House District 29 (Kalihi, Sand Island). Legislative aide Joey Manahan (D) and Ken Harding (R) are the candidates in an urban district that favors Democrats. Status: Leans Democrat.

House District 30 (Moanalua, Kalihi Valley, 'Alewa). Legislative aide John Mizuno (D) faces state business information director Rick Manayan (R) in a district where both parties are hopeful. Status: Tossup.

Current: Democrats, 41; Republicans, 10.

Outlook: Democrats have more open territory to defend, but voter turnout could decide which party makes gains.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.