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.