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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."
The law restricting out-of-state money, sometimes called the Lingle Law, was put in place following Lingle's 1-point loss in the 1998 gubernatorial race, when she raised significant money outside of the state. Lingle conceded she will need to raise dollars on the mainland but noted that Democratic federal officeholders consistently raise a majority of their money outside Hawaii. Doing so, she said, would be no problem.
According to a schedule of events for the pro-Israel group Norpac that was obtained by Roll Call, there is a fundraiser scheduled for Lingle, who is Jewish, on Oct. 30 at a private home in Lawrence, N.Y.
One way Lingle will tell donors she can win is by reminding them of what happened in 2002, when Hirono, then the lieutenant governor, and Ed Case, then a state Representative, battled for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Hirono won the primary by 2 points and then lost to Lingle by 5 points in the general election.
Hirono and Case are running against each other again, this time for Senate. Just as last time, Hirono is running with the establishment support. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D), the top political figure in the state, is still upset at Case for challenging Akaka in 2006. And last week Inouye told the Hawaii press that he intends to vote for Hirono in the Democratic primary.
"This election cycle should be most interesting and very exciting," Inouye said in a statement following Lingle's entrance.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee immediately tied Lingle on Tuesday to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom Lingle formally nominated at the 2008 Republican National Convention.
In a statement, DSCC spokesman Matt Canter also tied Lingle to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and national Republicans "whose sole priority is to defeat President Obama at every turn."
But Lingle said tying her to the national party won't work for Democrats. Voters in Hawaii know her as a strong fiscal conservative, she said, yet also as someone who is often criticized by members of her own party. Lingle said the economy and the federal budget will be the top issues in the race and that she has the right message on those issues.
"We're in an economy that's reliant on tourism, and that means we need a strong American economy," Lingle said. "When people are worried about the future, they don't take trips to Hawaii."