Former Republican governor Linda Lingle of Hawaii might win one of the major upsets in the U.S. Senate 2012 elections. As the most popular GOP figure in state history and an extraordinary campaigner, I suggest this despite the fact that Hawaii is one of the most Democratic states in the nation, that it is the home state of the candidate at the top on the Hawaiian ballot, President Obama, and that her opponent, Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, is a formidable political figure in her own right.

Polling is difficult in this state, and often inaccurate, but the few recent published polls indicate Horono is well ahead, perhaps by double digits. Lingle has released her own internal poll that asserts she is only 4 points behind Hirono (with Hirono under 50 percent). The public release of a candidate’s own poll just before an election is often not reliable information, so skepticism is in order. On the other hand, Lingle is a unique political figure in this state, and was a very popular two-term governor who only recently retired.

I suspect that Lingle is actually trailing Mazie Hirono by a number of points, but that no candidate is above 50 percent. Lingle’s secret political weapon is her popularity among native Hawaiian voters who make up about 25 percent of the electorate. (She also defeated Hirono in her first race for governor.)

But I think there is another, much bigger reason why Lingle might emerge the winner on election night.

Hawaii is the most western U.S. state, located in the Pacific Ocean six time zones from the eastern U.S. coast. On November 6, the most contested “battleground” states in the presidential election are located on the east coast, including Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. The major Midwestern contested state, Ohio, is also in the same time zone. If Mitt Romney’s political fortunes continue in their present trend (there is no guarantee, of course, that they will), the outcome of the presidential election might be clear by 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. More likely, the outcome will be known by 10:00 p.m. EST. Hawaii is now five hours behind Eastern Standard Time. Thus, the result of the U.S. presidential election will likely be known in Hawaii between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m., Hawaiian time. Many Hawaiians will not yet have voted.

One of Lingle’s main campaign arguments this year has been that if there is to be a Republican president, a Republican House of Representatives, and a Republican U.S. Senate, Hawaii will need a Republican voice in Washington, D.C. Currently, Hawaii has a Democratic governor, two Democratic members of Congress, and two Democratic senators. Even if the Democrats retain the U.S. senate (which probably won’t be known until after the polls close in Hawaii), her argument makes lots of sense to the self-interests of Hawaiians who live far off shore from the U.S. mainland, and could easily be forgotten in the nation’s capital so many thousands of miles away unless they had an effective advocate in the party in power.

The rules are that an official declaration of the presidential winner cannot take place until all the polls are closed, but official or not, I suspect the winner will be known in Hawaii by mid-afternoon. Lingle might already have a majority of votes without the presidential winner, but if that winner is Mitt Romney, Hawaiian voters will have a powerful incentive to send a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 2013.

All of this is, of course, speculative. We don’t yet know who will win the presidential election, and we don’t yet know how well Lingle is doing on her own. But in the unique case of the state of Hawaii, time can be of critical importance. Hawaii will almost certainly cast its electoral votes for Barack Obama, but it just might want to hedge its bets, and send the likeable and trusted Linda Lingle to Washington, D.C. as well.

Barry Casselman is co-author of the new book Taking Turns: Political Stalemate or New Direction in the Race for 2012.

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