Nebraska and Hawaii: Studying Senate Handicapping

by Stuart Rothenberg March 7, 2012 · 8:00 AM EST

There is no single “right” way to handicap a race.

You can evaluate where the race is at a particular moment and “rate” what you see. Or, after noting the candidates’ current standing, you can make an informed projection about how the race will play out, changing your rating if and when events don’t play out as expected.

Similarly, you can give the benefit of the doubt to strong candidates, even if they are running in difficult environments, or you can figure that while candidate quality can be extremely important, a district’s or a state’s fundamentals are more important.

There are plenty of other variables to consider, of course, particularly in a presidential year. How will turnout affect the race? Will the presidential contest define downballot choices? Will a primary weaken, or even strengthen, one of the parties?

The Hawaii and Nebraska Senate races are two perfect examples of how one can evaluate a race.

Republicans got the absolutely best candidate they could in Hawaii when former Gov. Linda Lingle surprised many observers and jumped into the state’s open Senate race. Democrats also may have gotten their best possible candidate in Nebraska when Bob Kerrey, a former governor and Senator, reversed an earlier decision and jumped into the Cornhusker State open-seat contest.

I remain skeptical about both candidacies, however, and because of that, I’ve rated Hawaii as Lean Democrat and Nebraska as Republican Favored, an even less competitive category. Others see those races differently.

My skepticism about Lingle, 58, has nothing to do with her candidate skills or political appeal.

Any Republican who can win two terms as governor in Hawaii obviously has political savvy and knows how to connect with voters. When she was re-elected in 2006, an absolutely horrible year for Republicans, Lingle drew more than 62 percent of the vote.

Nor is money a major issue. Lingle, who served eight years as mayor of Maui before she narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid in 1998, showed more than $1.4 million in the bank at the end of December, about $350,000 more than her likely general election opponent, Rep. Mazie Hirono (D), and far more than Hirono’s chief adversary for the Democratic nomination, ex-Rep. Ed Case.

Lingle’s problem is that no Republican has won a Hawaii Senate race in more than 40 years, and the last Republican to win a statewide federal election was Ronald Reagan in 1984.

The odds against any Republican running statewide are enormous, and President Barack Obama’s presence on the ticket doesn’t help her prospects. He won 72 percent of the vote last time, and while his numbers might slide, Lingle will need to get the votes of at least 100,000 Hawaiians who vote for Obama for president. That’s not impossible, but it places a heavy burden on her.

Lingle was able to win statewide in spite of her party. Now, she’ll be running in a federal race in a presidential year, when partisanship runs high. And like Mike Sullivan and Kathy Karpan, popular statewide Democratic officials in Wyoming in the 1990s, Inez Tenenbaum, a popular Democratic statewide official in South Carolina more than a dozen years ago, and Bill Weld, a one-time successful Massachusetts Republican governor, Lingle is likely to find the jump from a state race to a federal contest quite challenging.

So, while Lingle is a serious candidate and her candidacy certainly deserves watching, she faces a very difficult task. And that’s why the Rothenberg Political Report rates the Hawaii Senate race as Lean Democrat. (Roll Call also rates the contest as Leans Democratic.)

Kerrey’s candidacy, in some respects, is similar to Lingle’s. He’s a big name, and unlike Lingle, he has been elected to federal office in Nebraska. But Kerrey won those Senate races in 1988 and 1994, well before the current upturn in partisan polarization, and he hasn’t served in office since 2000. Lingle left office just recently.

Kerrey, 68, will also have to deal with the fact that he left Nebraska in 2001 to become president of the New School in New York City. He has been out of the state for more than a decade, and Republicans have plenty of ammunition to use against him, including some videotape of Kerrey saying, “The longer I live [in New York], the further to the left I get on health care.”

Obama drew less than 42 percent in Nebraska four years ago, and it is difficult to imagine that he’ll do as well again in the state, which means that Kerrey, like Lingle, will have to draw many voters who do not vote for his party’s presidential nominee.

So, like Lingle, Kerrey deserves to be taken seriously. But skepticism is warranted. After all, he has been out of the state for years, has been mentioned as a potential candidate in New York and has already flip-flopped about his interest in the Senate race. Times have changed, and that makes Kerrey an even longer shot in Nebraska than Lingle is in Hawaii. That’s why my newsletter rates the race Republican Favored. (Roll Call rates it as Leans Republican.)

Democrats have a scenario about how Kerrey can win. Republicans have a scenario for Lingle. But until those scenarios start to play out, I will look at the fundamentals of each race. And the fundamentals are against Lingle and Kerrey.