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Hawaii's 1st C.D. Looks Like A Powder Keg

In Oregon, Wyden Coasting To Re-election

By Stuart Rothenberg

Hawaii 1 Trouble in Paradise? Hawaii likes to think of itself as an inviting oasis of beauty, but the state's 1st Congressional District, which includes Honolulu but doesn't even include the entire island of Oahu, looks more like a political powder keg waiting to explode.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie has represented the district since 1990, but his 50-46 percent victory last year was uncomfortably close, even if it marked the second straight challenge to Abercrombie by former Vietnam POW/Ross Perot associate Orson Swindle.

Abercrombie's showing in what should have been a good Democratic year has raised eyebrows, and encouraged potential Republican and Democratic challengers.

On the GOP side, former Hawaii House of Representatives Minority leader Gene Ward, who is serving his fourth term in the Legislature, is already making the rounds in Washington, D.C., telling Republican operatives that he is in the race.

A specialist in business creation and development, Ward, 54, is an admirer of Swindle, and freely admits that he wouldn't be running if Swindle wanted to take another shot at Abercrombie.

But Ward may not be the only Republican to run. State Rep. Quentin Kawananakoa, who replaced Ward as minority leader and whose ancestry might be an advantage, has also indicated that he may run.

Hawaii's 1st C.D. isn't entirely alien territory to the GOP. Republican Pat Saiki held the seat for two terms, winning elections in 1986 and 1988, before giving up the seat to run statewide. While Bill Clinton carried both Hawaii congressional districts in 1992 and 1996, his margin was narrower in the 1st C.D. than in the 2nd in each election.

But the Republicans' interest in taking on the pony-tailed Abercrombie, whom they will attack for being too liberal, doesn't tell the whole story. Even Democrats are looking at a possible primary challenge to the congressman. One-time congressional nominee Mufi Hannemann, who now serves on the Honolulu city council, has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but he is also looking at other offices.

Democrats are watching Abercrombie closely, and Hawaii 1 must currently be regarded as "in play" for 1998. But the GOP's chances of knocking off the congressman could well depend on whether the Democrats are divided, as well as whether they can avoid a financially draining primary of their own.

Oregon Senate: GOP Vacuum

There is no better example of the rapidly changing winds of politics than Oregon. Last year, Democrat Ron Wyden won a classic squeaker when he pulled out a narrow 48-47 percent victory over Republican Gordon Smith. Less than a year later, Smith tried again for the Senate, and won.

Now, Wyden is seeking re-election (actually, he's seeking election to a full six-year term), and the early indications are that he will coast to victory.

Wyden's good fortune is largely the result of the GOP's thin bench. The Republicans don't have any established political figures to run against the senator, and party strategists are pulling their hair out over what they acknowledge is a missed opportunity.

At least three Republicans are looking at the Senate race or getting ready to run.

State Sen. John Lim seems ready to make a run for the GOP nomination, but party insiders say that he needs to work on candidate skills and figure out where he stands on the issues. They aren't optimistic about his fund-raising potential.

Former state party chairman Craig Berkman, who lost a bid for the GOP nomination for governor in 1994, allegedly has personal resources to get his campaign off the ground. But he has a reputation as a liberal and might well generate either primary opposition or a third party candidate with the sole intention of draining away conservatives, even it if meant reelecting the liberal Wyden. Berkman recently confirmed that state regulators are looking into some of his financial transactions, including, according to Portland's Oregonian newspaper, "transactions that allowed certain investors to convert personal loans they made to Berkman into shares in Berkman's companies."

If Berkman doesn't run, conservative businessman Bill Witt probably will. Although he has run unsuccessfully for Congress twice -- in 1994 and 1996 -- and briefly was in last year's Senate race (until he gave way to Gordon Smith), Witt still has plenty of ambition and a core of devoted followers. He lost to Cong. Elizabeth Furse (D-OR 1) 52-45 percent last year.

In most states, an incumbent like Wyden would draw at least a credible opponent, if not a well-credentialed, experienced challenger. But it's far from clear that the Republicans will threaten Wyden next year, giving the Democrats an opportunity to spend more time on other vulnerable seats.

Spotlight Archives:

Pennsylvania's 15th C.D. Looks Competitive (12/09/97)
In Idaho, A Rare Opportunity For Dems (11/19/97)
Stay The Course (11/6/97)
Car-Tax Issue Lifts Gilmore In Virginia (10/23/97)
New Jersey Governor's Race Down To The Wire (10/9/97)
Idaho Scramble: Who's Running For What? (9/25/97)
Hawaii's 1st C.D. Looks Like A Powder Keg (9/10/97)
Molinari's Departures Leaves Opening For Dems (8/25/97)
Georgia Governor's Race A Free-For-All (8/12/97)
Rep. Jon Fox Faces A One-Two Punch (7/30/97)
Sen. Hollings Prepares For A Fifth Term (7/22/97)
The House: Looking Ahead To 1998 (7/15/97)
Sen. Bond Has Re-election Edge (7/7/97)
Bumpers' Decision Encourages GOP (7/3/97)
Kentucky Senatorial Race A Toss-Up (6/24/97)
Nevada's Senator Reid Looks Like An Early Favorite (6/17/97)
1998 Gubernatorial Ratings (6/17/97)
Indiana's Evan Bayh Could Reclaim His Father's Old Senate Seat (6/3/97)
Who Will Control The House After '98? (5/30/97)
New Mexico's 3rd District: Color It Republican Green (5/20/97)
Don't Look For Many Senate Retirements In '98 (5/13/97)
Louisiana Senate, 1996: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over (5/5/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Re-election Ratings (4/25/97)
Dem, GOP Tests In Connecticut, Arizona (4/9/97)
Don't Count Al D'Amato Out Yet (3/25/97)
Whitman A Favorite In New Jersey (2/25/97)
Sen. Boxer Could Be Vulnerable (2/11/97)
Impressive Bloodlines In Minnesota Governor's Race (1/28/97)
Looking Ahead To '98 Gubernatorial Races In California, Florida (1/23/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Ratings (1/23/97)
Family Feud: The Fight for RNC Chairman (1/10/97)

Spotlight 1996

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