In Hawaii’s 47 years of statehood, no incumbent member of Congress has ever lost reelection in either the primary or general election.
Experts are giving Case a chance to defeat Akaka in the primary, but polls and local history indicate he will need to find a way to beat the odds if he’s going to pull off an extraordinary upset and topple a member who has been in Hawaii’s congressional delegation for 30 years.
The contest has been very much about age, ideology and style. Case is an energetic 53-year-old centrist who brazenly and unexpectedly joined the race in January after just four years in the House, while Akaka is a more liberal 82-year-old who speaks slowly and thrives on projecting his warmth.
Dan Boylan, a professor at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu, said another issue, race, suggests Akaka might be even safer than polls suggest.
According to an independent Ward Research poll released Sunday by the Honolulu Advertiser, Akaka maintains a double-digit lead at 51-38. The same poll found the incumbent up 51-40 in June.
While conventional wisdom suggests much of the 10 to 15 percent of people who are undecided could swing for the challenger instead of the known incumbent, Boylan said that might not be true with Case, who is Caucasian, and Akaka, who is Native Hawaiian.
“Historically the Caucasian vote usually will announce itself over the phone to a pollster, and the Japanese-American vote or the Asian vote often won’t,” Boylan said. “And the Asian vote will tend to go with the mainstream Democrat.”
Boylan cited a series of “Great White Hopes” who have polled sizeable leads in Hawaii primaries only to lose. Two major examples were Italian-American Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, who in 1978 saw his primary lead over Japanese-American Gov. George Ariyoshi (D) disintegrate, and Chicago native Rep. Cecil Heftel, who in 1986 led by a wide margin early but came up short against Native Hawaiian John Waihee (D), also in the gubernatorial primary.
But despite the polls and history, Boylan said he wouldn’t be surprised if Case wins this weekend. He and others point to the congressman’s tireless campaigning and the changing demographics of Hawaii, which has a growing white population and a body politic shifting from the left toward the center.
Those shifts play to Case’s message of transition. His campaign has, from day one, been focused on replacing one of Hawaii’s octogenarian senators (the other is 82-year-old Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye) to establish some seniority for the future. But Case also said he better embodies what Hawaiian politics is becoming.
“Akaka is very much a product of and beholden to the status quo, and that political culture in Hawaii which is backing him up has to change for Hawaii’s sake,” Case said. “I’m not a product of that culture.”
Instead, Case stresses moderation and bipartisanship. He has publicly appealed to Republicans and independents to vote for him in the open primary Saturday, and his chances could hinge on whether those groups turn out for him.
Case appeared to be boosted three weeks ago when Republican Senate front-runner Jerry Coffee’s health problems forced him to drop out. The only other major Republican race on the ballot is popular Gov. Linda Lingle’s (R) primary, which is not close.
But Lingle last week urged Republicans to stick with their party’s primary and cast votes for Coffee, who is still on the ballot, so GOP officials can name a general-election replacement. The governor is seen as a likely future Senate candidate, and Case winning this year could hamper her future aspirations, said Neal Milner of the University of Hawaii-Manoa.
“There’s all kinds of reasons why the Republicans wouldn’t want to have Ed Case be successful,” Milner said. “He’s young, he’s moderate, he’s on the way up, which is exactly what the Republican governor is in a state where the Republican Party’s really tried to resuscitate itself.”
Akaka spokeswoman Elisa Yadao declined to comment on whether Case’s appeal to Republicans and independents in a Democratic primary is appropriate, saying it is a personal choice for Hawaiians.
“We’re doing what we’ve been doing all along, which is going to our base, working very hard on our get-out-the-vote program, talking about the issues and comparing and contrasting these men,” Yadao said.
Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) is also seen as a possible replacement for Akaka or Inouye, and he has joined national Democrats in supporting Akaka.
Akaka has used that support to out-raise Case by more than $1 million in the primary. In recent weeks, however, the National Association of Realtors has flooded the state with $600,000 in TV ads and mailings in support of Case, its largest primary expenditure ever.
Another potential boon to Case is the Democratic primary to replace him in the House, said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. Case won 63 percent of the vote in 2004 against a well-funded Republican.
In a year when a theme around the country is changing Washington politics, Duffy said the primary is about whether Hawaii is ready to change its politics now as opposed to several years from now.
“Nobody I have talked to argues with Case’s premise here that the state is changing and that they ought to have sort of an orderly transition, that Akaka is sort of a back-bencher in the Senate,” Duffy said. “The question is: Is he ahead of his time? But I think it’s all happening.”