HONOLULU (AP) — U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono defeated former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle on Tuesday night to become Hawaii's next U.S. senator, prevailing in a race many believed key to shifting power dynamics in Congress.
The Associated Press made the call based on statewide exit polling data. Early returns showed Hirono with a dominant lead over Lingle.
"When I saw the first printout, I gasped," Hirono said. "And then tears came to my eyes."
Hirono ran on a platform of stopping Lingle as a representative of national Republican interests. At every turn, Hirono linked her opponent with well-known GOP names including Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and George Bush.
"I wish I could have delivered a better result to you, but it had nothing to do with you," said Lingle, addressing supporters in her campaign headquarters.
Hirono held court for Democrats in a state known to support the party. President Barack Obama topped the ticket for Democrats in his birth state in his bid for re-election.
Lingle failed in pitching herself as a bipartisan leader who's a better fit for Hawaii, given rare Senate elections without incumbents.
Lingle campaign officials said they were disappointed with media organizations calling the race based on exit polls.
"It's irresponsible for national media to be calling the Hawaii race with no data," said Corrie Heck, Lingle's campaign spokeswoman. "They called it within minutes of the polls closing despite considerable challenges in over 20 precincts statewide."
"We remain confident," Heck said.
Hirono said before the race was called that she's happy for her advantages as a Democrat, but she took nothing for granted in the race. Lingle said she considered herself an underdog with a strong chance to win.
Hirono and Lingle headlined a Hawaii election expected to yield a win for President Barack Obama, benefiting Democrats running for federal offices in the state.
Two House races were also in play: Democrat Colleen Hanabusa against Republican Charles Djou and Democrat Tulsi Gabbard versus Republican Kawika Crowley. Both Democrats took leads in early returns.
Voters at polls on Tuesday favored Hirono but had a wide array of opinion. In addition to support for each candidate, some liked neither and simply voted for the candidate they disliked less.
Carolyn Haley, a 53-year-old administrator at an information technology company, said Lingle has been a disaster for Hawaii, but Hirono's not much better.
"I hate her (Lingle) and I hate voting for Mazie but I'm not voting for Lingle," said Haley, who lives in Honolulu.
Lingle said she spoke with several Democrat voters on the campaign trail recently who said they would quietly support her. She said other factors may favor her, such as passionate mayoral voters rallying against a $5 billion rail proposal in Honolulu.
Richard Tran, a 19-year-old student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said he voted for Obama but also supported Lingle and Djou, and left some of the ballot blank because he didn't want to vote "blindly."
"I don't go so much for a particular party," Tran said. "I look for someone who matched my views and that could be Republican or Democrat."
The Senate race brought heavier attention to Hawaii than usual because of a rare open race created by U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka's announcement that he would retire. Akaka had held the seat since 1990, when as a congressman he was appointed to replace U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga, who died.
The opening dovetailed with Republican hopes of winning four seats nationwide to regain majority control in the U.S. Senate. Lingle, a two-term governor who left office in 2010, was the best chance for a struggling GOP party in Hawaii. She easily won an August primary.
Hirono won a closer Democratic primary against former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, arguing she was a stronger supporter of Obama and Democratic values. She had stronger support from party officials still sore at Case for challenging Akaka in a primary in an earlier race.
Hirono won the endorsement of the state's largest newspaper, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, while Lingle was endorsed by the Maui News and the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. Lingle is a former mayor of Maui.
Hirono undercut Lingle's argument of bipartisanship by saying Lingle is in line with national Republicans, including Obama's GOP opponent Mitt Romney.
Hirono said she hopes Washington politicians can set aside differences that led to abysmal productivity in 2012.
"I'm hopeful that we will be able to focus on what's good for the people of our country," she said.
Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia .