The first question facing Democrats is, "What if Rep. Neil Abercrombie runs for governor?" The second question is, "What happens if Abercrombie doesn't run?"
Abercrombie shocked many in the party last week as the rumors of his interest in the governorship swirled, and he didn't quash them. In the hyper-speculative world of local politics a nondenial is almost as good as answering in the affirmative.
Abercrombie, according to several associates, is mulling over a campaign for state office. There are three reasons why.
First, the Democrats still have no real candidate. The possible candidacy of Big Island Mayor Harry Kim wafts in and out like a Kona wind, but it gets little encouragement from Kim, and Democrats are running out of time while the affable, if somewhat cryptic, former civil defense director makes up his mind. Abercrombie knows statewide campaigns take planning and resources, and you don't win if you toss your hat in the ring the day before the filing deadline.
Second, despite Governor Lingle being a popular incumbent in a booming economy, the Lingle machine still sometimes sputters. Her handling of the excise tax increase for mass transit and the appointment of Bev Harbin to the state Legislature both backfired. Also, her track record in backing GOP incumbents and newcomers in the 2004 election was terrible; the GOP gained one and lost six for a net loss of five seats.
Finally and most important, Democrat Abercrombie just can't stand GOP politics either on a local or national level. If he can't change the make-up of the U.S. House, perhaps he has a shot at flushing the GOP from the state Capitol's fifth floor.
But say Abercrombie decides not to take the political risk and runs for re-election, secure in the fact that never in Hawaii has an incumbent member of Congress been defeated.
Without someone of Abercrombie's stature in the race for governor, Democrats are left trying to energize a base with one of two long shots: Either Kim or Lee Donohue, the former Honolulu police chief. The Democrats would be left with a standard bearer who has never been to a party convention, has never held a coffee hour on Oahu, Maui, Molokai or Kauai and has no proven record of raising campaign money.
Bringing in the money is one thing, but what will a Kim or Donohue candidacy do for the other Democrats running? Will more Democrats rush to the polls as they did in 2004, or will they stay away, turned off by the major Democratic candidates?
Observers are split. Some predict local races would succeed or fail on the local issues and not on the number of voters lured to the voting booth by the race for governor. Other think Democrats would stay home and the GOP would gain legislative seats.
The only thing certain for the Democrats is that they move into the last 11 months before the 2006 election with a lot more questions than answers.