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Nebraska and Hawaii: Studying Senate Handicapping

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle deserves to be taken seriously in her Senatorial bid, but she faces a tough fight, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

There is no single “right” way to handicap a race.

You can evaluate where the race is at a particular moment and “rate” what you see. Or, after noting the candidates’ current standing, you can make an informed projection about how the race will play out, changing your rating if and when events don’t play out as expected.

Similarly, you can give the benefit of the doubt to strong candidates, even if they are running in difficult environments, or you can figure that while candidate quality can be extremely important, a district’s or a state’s fundamentals are more important.

There are plenty of other variables to consider, of course, particularly in a presidential year. How will turnout affect the race? Will the presidential contest define downballot choices? Will a primary weaken, or even strengthen, one of the parties?

The Hawaii and Nebraska Senate races are two perfect examples of how one can evaluate a race.

Republicans got the absolutely best candidate they could in Hawaii when former Gov. Linda Lingle surprised many observers and jumped into the state’s open Senate race. Democrats also may have gotten their best possible candidate in Nebraska when Bob Kerrey, a former governor and Senator, reversed an earlier decision and jumped into the Cornhusker State open-seat contest.

I remain skeptical about both candidacies, however, and because of that, I’ve rated Hawaii as Lean Democrat and Nebraska as Republican Favored, an even less competitive category. Others see those races differently.

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.

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