Hawaii lawmakers square off in Saturday’s Senate primary contests

Is it 2012 or 2002?

That's the question Hawaii voters might find themselves asking Saturday, when some of the state's most prominent lawmakers square off in a Senate contest that largely replays the tough battle for governor a decade ago.

With veteran Sen. Daniel Akaka (D) retiring at the end of this year, Rep. Mazie Hirono, a three-term Democrat, is battling former-Rep. Ed Case (D) in a primary contest setting the stage for a likely November run against Linda Lingle (R), the former governor.

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It's precisely the scenario that surrounded the governor's race of 2002, when Hirono defeated Case in a primary squeaker (41 to 40 percent), then lost to Lingle in a close general matchup later in the year.

This time around, the Democratic primary is expected to be much less dramatic, as the most recent Honolulu Star-Advertiser polls show Hirono with a double-digit lead. Hirono, the party's pick, has the definitive fund-raising edge, while Case, a centrist, has a history of rubbing Democratic leaders the wrong way. In 2006, for instance, Case angered Democrats when he challenged Sen. Daniel Inouye – practically a state institution – in that year's primary (Inouye won by 10 points); and last year he riled the party again when he highlighted polls suggesting Lingle would defeat Hirono this November.

Across the aisle, Lingle – Hawaii's first female governor and the first Republican to hold that seat since 1962 – is projected to breeze to victory Saturday in her primary contest against John Carroll, a former state lawmaker who once headed Hawaii's Republican Party. 

Lingle is not only better known in the state, she also has some national recognition, having given the official speech announcing Sarah Palin as the Republican's vice presidential nominee at the GOP's national convention four years ago.

November's likely Lingle-Hirono re-match appears much tougher to call. Lingle, who won the 2002 contest 52 to 47 percent, has rallied the backing of powerful business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But state polls have shown Hirono consistently ahead, and the Democrats think they have a trump card in the form of President Obama, a native son of Hawaii who took the state with 72 percent of the vote in 2008 – his largest margin of victory nationwide.

Hirono also got a boost last month when GOP Rep. Don Young (Alaska) took the extremely rare step of crossing the aisle to endorse her.

“If you’re looking for a United States senator who doesn’t just talk about bipartisanship but actually knows how to work with both Republicans and Democrats to get things done, Mazie Hirono will be that senator,” Young says in a highly atypical video the two lawmakers filmed together.

The Cook Political Report, a well-regarded election handicapper, rates the contest to replace Akaka a "toss up."