Democrats exiting the sinking ship: Part 2 

One of the Senate’s oldest members, Democrat Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, announced yesterday he will not seek reelection in 2012. He was elected with 54% of the vote in 1990 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Spark Matsunaga, and was reelected in 1994, 2000 and 2006 with 72%, 73% and 61% of the vote. His toughest race was the 2006 primary, when he was challenged by Rep. Ed Case and won by only a 55%-45% margin, not an impressive margin in a primary for a longtime incumbent.

(Akaka was born in September 1924, exactly four days after his senior colleague, Daniel Inouye.)

What are the prospects for the Akaka seat in 2012? Hawaii is a heavily Democratic state, but also one which tends to revere incumbents. It was Barack Obama’s best state in 2008 (as well as the state where he was born in 1961), but it cast relatively high percentages for incumbent Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Hawaii had never defeated an incumbent member of Congress until November 2010, when Republican 1st district Rep. Charles Djou, the plurality winner in a special election earlier in the year, lost to Democrat Colleen Hanabusa. Inouye is the most senior member of the Senate and, if you count his service as non-voting delegate from Hawaii, first elected in 1954, the most senior member of Congress, several months ahead of the longest-serving House member ever, John Dingell of Michigan.

The best-known Republican candidate would be former Governor Linda Lingle, who was barred from seeking a third term in 2010. There is no lack of possible Democratic candidates, including current and former members of Congress Hananbusa, Case and Mazie Hirono. There’s the possibility of a bitter primary.

Senator Inouye, still angry that Case had challenged Akaka in 2006, weighed in heavily against Case and for Hanabusa in the 1st district special election, which helped Djou win with 40% of the vote. You’ve got to figure Democrats are the favorite to hold this seat, but Republicans’ chances are something higher than zero.

I missed blogging on the retirement announcement last month of the senior Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico that he would not seek a sixth term in 2012. Bingaman defeated incumbent Republican Harrison Schmitt in 1982 and went on to win reelection with 63%, 54% (in 1994), 62% and 71% of the vote. Like Max Baucus of Montana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Bingaman is from a politically prominent family in a sparsely populated state where his party has been competitive but not dominant; all three went off to elite schools and returned home; all three seized on good chances to win a Senate seat at a young age. All are competent, hard-working, pleasant and all have held onto Senate years term after term that Republican might have often captured in open seat contests. They are one of the reasons over the last 20 years that Democrats in Senate races have outperformed Democrats in House and presidential races. Conrad already announced his retirement and now Bingaman is going too; Baucus, Chairman or ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee for going on 12 years, shows no sign of quitting and is not up for reelection until 2014.

Who will win Bingaman’s seat? I would give Republicans and Democrats even odds. New Mexico voted 57%-42% for Barack Obama in 2008, but its popular vote for the House in 2010 was only 52%-48% Democratic (a weak showing, since all three seats were held by incumbent Democrats) and voters picked Republican Susana Martinez governor, 53% to 47%.

In January I laid out my overview of the 2012 Senate races and explained why the playing field favors Republicans. Now we have five Democrats retiring, Akaka, Bingaman, Conrad, Jim Webb of Virginia and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut; Republicans have an excellent chance of picking up the North Dakota seat, pretty good chances in Virginia and New Mexico and maybe a chance in Hawaii. Only two Republicans so far have announced retirements, Kay Bailey Hutchison of heavily Republican Texas and John Kyl of heavily Republican Arizona. Democrats may have some chance at each of those seats, but only under ideal circumstances.

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Michael Barone

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