Hawai'i Democrats entered 2006 so disorganized and uncertain of their talent that they were unable to field a "name" candidate to challenge Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's re-election.
But the Democrats will likely have a diverse group to choose from when the governorship next comes up in four years — and possibly another U.S. Senate seat, as well.
The turnabout is mostly the result of the shakeup in the party caused by Rep. Ed Case's decision to give up his seat in the 2nd Congressional District to challenge Sen. Daniel Akaka in Saturday's Democratic primary.
Ten Democrats jumped into the race for Case's seat — including eight current or former elected officials — and they've impressed enough to instantly create a pool of candidates who will be able to contend for higher office again in the future.
If a Democrat ends up winning the 2nd District seat against Republicans Quentin Kawananakoa or Bob Hogue, he or she will immediately become a factor in statewide politics, as will several of the losers who gained valuable experience and name recognition.
Case's audacious challenge forced other top Democrats such as Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann to think hard about where they want to position themselves politically.
And it energized the declining labor/liberal wing of the Democratic Party to reassert its dominance to try to fend off the moderate new direction in which Case wants to take the party.
If Case wins, he could hold the Senate seat for a couple of decades and succeed Sen. Daniel Inouye as Hawai'i's most influential Democratic politician.
If he's defeated by Akaka, Case will lose some of his political luster, but if he chooses to remain active in Democratic politics, he'll still have his core of loyal supporters eager to help him nudge the party on a more moderate and bipartisan course.
He'd likely remain a serious contender in a future race for governor or senator, although he wouldn't be able to sneak up on anyone in four years and could have lots of stiff competition from the likes of Abercrombie, Hannemann and some of the District 2 candidates.
Brightening the Democrats' prospects is a relatively sparse field on the Republican side of the equation.
Lingle has been a genius at perpetuating herself in a Democratic state, and she'd be a strong candidate for a future U.S. Senate opening.
But she's done little in her four years as governor to build the Republican Party behind her, and the field to follow in her footsteps is more full of question marks than formidable contenders.
Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona has many impressive qualities, but he's operated in Lingle's shadow with little opportunity to show what he can do. His deep ties to the Transformation Hawaii group seeking to bring more religion into government may not play well with the moderate Democrats and independents who have voted for Lingle.
Republicans have lost nine of the 19 seats they held in the state House of Representatives before Lingle was elected, and there are no GOP lawmakers who stand out as stellar candidates for higher office.
Kawananakoa and Hogue will still be around, win or lose, and the party has touted Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou as a future star, but the politics he's practiced to date have a small-time feel and there are questions about his stature for islandwide or statewide office.
Two of the most promising GOP prospects are Micah Kane, the former Republican chairman who has done an exceptional job as Lingle's Hawaiian Homes director, and popular Honolulu Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, but both would need to step up their visibility soon to contend for the top offices.