HONOLULU - 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.
With 244 of 250 precincts reporting statewide, Hirono led Lingle 61.7 percent to 36.8 percent.
"When I saw the first printout, I gasped," Hirono said. "And then tears came to my eyes."
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono places a flower lei on candidate Tulsi Gabbard at the Japanese Cultural Center on Tuesday in Honolulu.
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 W. 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.
In other congressional races, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard was handily defeating Republican Kawika Crowley 76.9 percent to 18.5 percent, with 134 of 135 precincts reporting.
In the first congressional district, which serves urban Oahu, Democratic incumbent Colleen Hanabusa took 53.5 percent of the vote, with Republican challenger Charles Djou garnering 44.5 percent of the vote.
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."
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.
"I guess we're disappointed," said Lingle's Maui County campaign manager, Stephanie Aveiro. "We gave it a really good try and feel great about Linda herself and how she did. She would have been a wonderful senator. I think the country really, really needs to pull together now, and I sincerely think that she would have worked in a bipartisan fashion and would have been a leader to help solve these problems we face."
State Democratic Maui County Regional Coordinator Dylan Beesley said he was proud of Hirono and how hard she and her volunteers fought to win.
"She knew, like her supporters, that Linda Lingle was not right for Hawaii," Beesley said. "Mazie is going to be a strong and powerful voice in the Senate.
"She will be leading the charge for a stronger, more energy independent and sustainable future for Hawaii," he said, adding that she plans to find ways to eventually cut Hawaii's cord to foreign oil. "I think both she and Tulsi (a war veteran) also understand the costs of war and are ready to end Afghanistan."
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.
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 ballots 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.
Hirono undercut Lingle's argument of bipartisanship by saying Lingle is in line with national Republicans, including Obama's GOP opponent, 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.
* Maui News Staff Writer Chris Hamilton contributed to this report.