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Linda Lingle Up to Challenge of Hawaii Senate Race

NRSC Hopes Former Governor’s Entry Thins Democratic Resources

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle on Tuesday officially entered the race for retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka’s seat.

Republicans cheered former Gov. Linda Lingle's entrance into the Hawaii Senate race on Tuesday, even as they said they remain realistic about the significant hurdles she faces.

Lingle's decision to run ensures the race for retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka's (D) seat will be one to watch next year.

In the state's first open Senate race since 1976, Lingle's two statewide victories and extensive campaign experience made her the National Republican Senatorial Committee's top recruit.

She was perhaps the only candidate in Hawaii able to put the race into play in what remains reliably Democratic territory. Democrats are defending 23 seats to the GOP's 10, and the NRSC hopes a competitive race in Hawaii will further thin its Democratic counterpart's resources.

Despite their optimism, Republicans in Hawaii and Washington, D.C., have no misconception of the reality of the race. With hometown hero President Barack Obama back at the top of the ticket, Lingle will need a significant portion of the electorate to split its vote in the presidential and Senate races. Obama carried the state with 72 percent in 2008.

In an interview, Lingle noted that Republicans picked up seven state House seats in 2000, when she served as the state GOP chairwoman, despite President George W. Bush winning less than 40 percent of the vote.

"It's a challenge, of course, to have the president running and be of a different party, but people here in Hawaii are very discerning voters and have a history of ticket splitting," she said. "The good thing is that people here know me so well."

Beyond that, Lingle won re-election in 2006 with 63 percent amid a nationwide Democratic wave. That same year, Akaka took 61 percent, then-Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) won 69 percent, and Rep. Mazie Hirono (D) won 61 percent.

"We've seen that instance in the past, and that's definitely a dynamic we're going to have to see to be successful in '12," said Dylan Nonaka, a Hawaii-based GOP consultant and former state party executive director.

But Democrats noted their party's recent success in the state and said Lingle does not have much experience raising money out of state, thanks in part to state laws restricting mainland contributions in state races.

"She's going to have to convince donors that Hawaii is a competitive state, and I think that's going to be a hurdle for her," Democratic strategist Ed Espinoza said, noting the party's sweep in last year's gubernatorial, Senate and House races. "Now, she's got to make the case that she can do better in 2012."

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