By Josh Lederman
The Hill
25 October, 2011

LAS VEGAS — For most Republican politicians, there is no smear more loathed, more insulting or more politically perilous than to be called a RINO — a Republican in Name Only.

Not for Linda Lingle.

“I’ve been called a RINO before, which I don’t mind,” the former Hawaii governor told a crowd of diehard Republican activists huddled in a Las Vegas ballroom. “There are a lot of people who support these RINOs, whether it’s me or [former New York Mayor] Rudy Giuliani or [former New Jersey Gov.] Christine Todd Whitman.”

For Lingle, who announced her Senate bid on Oct. 11, her success in Hawaii is a sign that with the right candidate, Republicans can be successful in any state in the country. After all, she said, being a Republican in Hawaii isn’t the same as being a Republican in Alabama or Oklahoma.

And from Lingle’s point of view, moderate Republican candidates such as herself are the GOP’s silver bullet and its best hope for expanding the map and retaking control of the Senate.

Think of it as a tropical adaptation of the “big tent” approach.

“In Hawaii, we have an expression: E komo mai. It means, ‘Come inside, everybody is welcome,’ ” she said at the Western Republican Leadership Conference, part of a mainland tour to introduce Lingle on the national stage.

That approach worked well for Lingle in the statehouse, where she was the first woman to be elected Hawaii’s governor, and the first Republican since the 1950s. But in the Senate, Lingle would not only have to answer to Hawaii voters, but also to the Republican leadership.

“This was an issue for me as well,” Lingle said in an interview with The Hill. “I wanted to know I could be effective, but do it in a way that would allow me to be true to my values and the people I represent.”

Lingle said she laid her cards on the table well in advance, and Republicans in Washington are under no illusions.

“I was very upfront with them as they talked to me about this race and recruited me to enter. I wanted them to understand that what they were getting if they got me was not what they were getting maybe from a candidate in another state,” she said.

Lingle’s record as governor includes signs of how she was able to win reelection as a Republican with an almost 30-point margin in 2006, in a state that two years later chose President Obama 72-27 over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Although favoring parental consent for abortions, she did not oppose all abortion rights. She also allowed tax increases for mass transit projects and cigarettes, and spoke out for expanding renewable energy.

So far, none of that has seemed to vex Republicans, who are overjoyed to have a viable candidate with a history of electoral success in a state whose open Senate seat they had long written off.

The GOP needs to flip four Democratic seats in 2012 to take control of the Senate. In the days after Lingle announced, national Republican groups fell over themselves heaping praise on the former governor, whose entrance instantly put a safe Democratic seat in play for Republicans.

The Cook Political Report moved the race from “solid Democratic” to “toss-up” two days after Lingle entered the race.

Democrats are already working to let the air out of the independent-minded persona Lingle’s campaign has worked to promote, drilling her for not taking a firm stand for or against Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget proposal.

“Hopefully, Governor Lingle has found time to read the proposals and can give a firm answer – yes or no – on whether she supports President Obama’s jobs plan or the Republican budget proposal,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter. “Instead of standing up for Hawaii seniors, Linda Lingle still refuses to criticize her party’s extreme plans to balance the budget on the backs of seniors by gutting Medicare.”

Meanwhile, Lingle knows exactly the role she sees herself playing in the Senate. She points to another centrist Republican woman, her close friend Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), as an example of the approach she will take.

“She’s been able to be very true to her values. She doesn’t always go with the party leadership, but they respect her,” Lingle said.

Describing an “executive caucus” of former governors and mayors who bring pragmatic experience to the Senate, Lingle said she expects to be one of the lawmakers called upon to serve in Gang of 12-like arrangements, where bipartisan groups of senators bridge political gaps to tackle the largest problems.

Lingle’s candidacy has sucked all the air out of the Republican primary to replace retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), capturing 85 percent in a survey released Oct. 18 by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.

But she faces real competition on the Democratic side — from whichever candidate ends up getting the nomination. Rep. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), the Democratic front-runner who Lingle beat in the 2002 gubernatorial race, is six points ahead of Lingle, according to polling on the race. Lingle is inches ahead of the No. 2 Democratic candidate, former Rep. Ed Case (Hawaii), beating him by two points in a general-election match-up.

For Lingle, the path to Washington involves less turning out the Republican base and more convincing those across Hawaii’s diverse ethnic and ideological spectrum that there is a place for them in the Grand Old Party.

Lingle, a Jew, told GOP activists that sitting in Republican functions and hearing God referred to in only one way made her keenly aware of how many feel left out by the party, to its own electoral detriment.

“I understand the strength of the Christian faith, but I’m telling you that it makes people feel excluded and not included,” she said. “They may never say anything to you, but I’ll tell you, they feel it, and when they feel it, they don’t join us.”

For the soft-spoken governor, who pauses reflectively before every statement in almost solemn contemplation, it was a risky move. Hours earlier at this conservative conference of mostly Christians, one woman warned that Shariah law had taken over New York City’s school system, because Muslim teachers were permitted to pray at work.

“I don’t stop to gauge. I just think it’s right and important to talk about,” Lingle told The Hill. “The things that make us uncomfortable are often important to talk about.”