Hawaii, a Democratic bastion, may tilt GOP

GOP gubernatorial candidate Linda Lingle is capitalizing on tarnished image of the Democrats.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Like clockwork, voters in Hawaii have elected a Democratic governor for the past 40 years, the country's longest-running gubernatorial winning streak.

But it might come to an end this year: Republican candidate Linda Lingle has amassed considerable support for the Nov. 5 election.

In terms of party membership, Hawaii remains one of the most staunchly Democratic states in the nation. But a series of prominent Democratic county and state politicians have been convicted on criminal charges. Those blemishes, along with Democrats' inability to lift the state from an economic slump, have fueled discontent with the political status quo and engendered a "throw the bums out" mentality.

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The rise of a Republican candidate could also reflect changing demographics in the 50th state: In recent years, it's seen an influx of relatively conservative retirees.

These waves have already lapped at Democratic domination in Hawaii. In the state Legislature, 20 of the 51 representatives wear Republican colors, including a number who beat high-profile Democratic favorites in their last election.

Lingle herself nearly turned over the Democratic apple cart in 1998. The daughter of a St. Louis car dealer and a former mayor of Maui, she lost a heated battle to Gov. Benjamin Cayetano by 5,200 votes, or 1 percent of the tally. (Term limits prohibit Mr. Cayetano from seeking reelection.)

In the four years since that defeat, Lingle has had time to regroup. The Democrats, on the other hand, seemed to hit bottom in late May, when the Democratic front-runner for the governor's slot, Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, withdrew in the face of fundraising corruption allegations. His departure left the party in disarray as it faced a bitter three-way primary – a rarity in a state where anointed Democratic candidates generally sail through the first round.

The winner of the Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, has had her work cut out. Closely tied to a governor who was unpopular with powerful unions, Ms. Hirono has struggled to avoid being tarred by her own party's misdeeds and inbred political culture.

This weakness especially showed in the primary when state Sen. Ed Case almost beat her far wealthier campaign with a platform calling for an end to business-as-usual Democratic politics. Hirono emerged with hardly any money left in her coffers and little union support.

Contrast that with Lingle, who faced no serious challenge in the primary and has enjoyed the staunch backing of the national Republican Party. Lingle has raised up to three times as much money as Hirono, thanks in part to help from the likes of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and EPA head Christie Whitman.

And she has minced no words when it comes to what she thinks of Hirono and the Democrats. In September, her campaign pinned the state's economic stagnation and problems in public education firmly on Hirono and the Democratic Party with a series of controversial campaign spots. Lingle has claimed that her track record in helping make Maui County the most prosperous in Hawaii gives her better credentials to mount a turnaround than a status quo politician like Hirono, who previously served as a state legislator for 14 years.

But Lingle's aggressive stance may be starting to backfire, changing the dynamics yet again in this eventful race. In the most recent polls, Hirono has pulled into a statistical dead heat with Lingle. She's scored points by questioning Lingle's success as mayor of Maui – where, it turns out, the Republican may not carry the popular vote in the coming election.

Furthermore, after dragging their feet, a number of the state's most powerful unions, including the Hawaii Government Employees Association, have come out for Hirono. The Democratic candidate has also turned up the fundraising heat in the home stretch, with former President Clinton flying into town to assist with some big-ticket events.

Expected low voter turnout, too, could hurt Lingle, with those most likely to support Hirono – union members and those in the Asian demographics – more likely to vote.

With just a week to go, analysts say the race is too close to call. What could tip the scales is an all-out media blitz in the days before the election – something Lingle could not afford in 1998. Now, it has the potential to put a Republican in the Hawaii governor's mansion for the first time since 1962.

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