Hawaii Republicans, Once Near Extinction, Prepare a Comeback

Honolulu, Hawaii (Chris Wattie/Reuter)
One-party rule has wreaked havoc in the state, and voters might turn to a new crop of Republicans.

A visit to the semiannual meetings of the national committees of the two major parties makes you realize that even in the polarizing Age of Trump, a midterm election isn’t one national election but 50 state ones. At last month’s Republican National Committee meeting in Austin, Texas, the mood ranged from optimistic to ready to ready for a funeral

On the one hand there was Maryland, where despite the fact that Donald Trump won only 34 percent in 2016, GOP governor Larry Hogan has a 68 percent approval rating. But in neighboring Pennsylvania, which Trump won against all expectations, Democratic governor Tom Wolf is favored for reelection, and a court-ordered redistricting map puts up to five GOP House seats at risk.

Then there is Hawaii. Local Republicans think they’ve hit rock bottom and begun to recover.

When Hawaii became a state in 1959 along with Alaska, it was the more Republican of the two. But gradually their positions reversed. As late as 1976, Hawaii still had a Republican U.S. senator, and Jimmy Carter won the state that year with only 50.59 percent of the vote.

But the growing power of public-employee labor unions and the failure of Republicans to appeal to the 70 percent of the state’s population that is nonwhite gradually made Hawaii into a one-party state. There was a brief interval, from 2002 to 2010, when the state elected Linda Lingle, the first GOP governor since the early 1960s. But she failed to enact meaningful reforms and neglected to build the party. The slide accelerated with the arrival of Hawaii-born Barack Obama on the national stage. It continued to the point where last year the Los Angeles Times declared that Republicans were “almost extinct in Hawaii.”

Today, the party has no members at all in the 25-seat state senate and only five members in the 51-seat state house.

Hillary Clinton may have won Hawaii with 62 percent of the vote, but Donald Trump’s national victory emboldened GOP activists there to declare that their party’s slide had to end. The aging and feckless party leadership was swept aside in favor of new faces.

Hawaii voters are getting restless. The state suffers from sky-high taxes, crushing public-employee pension debt, the largest per capita homeless population in the country, and an incompetent bureaucracy.

The new party chair is a young Filipina American named Shirlene DelaCruz Santiago Ostrov. Its new finance chairman is Mark Blackburn, a businessman who has quickly succeeded in paying off the party’s debt. Blackburn is also raising money to win state legislative seats that the party either used to hold or that are now held by Democrats who don’t fit their district.

There are signs that Hawaii voters are getting restless. The state suffers from sky-high taxes, crushing public-employee pension debt, the largest per capita homeless population in the country, and an incompetent bureaucracy.

That latter problem became a national story in January. Democratic governor David Ige’s popularity plummeted after a state worker triggered a ballistic-missile alert by twice pushing the wrong button during a drill. The alert led to 38 minutes of panic in part because no one could find the password for Governor Ige’s Twitter account. Today, Ige is on track to become the second governor in a row to lose his job in a Democratic primary.

Ostrov, the new GOP party chair, is focusing on rebuilding the party from the ground up. She plans to issue, after the August 11 primary, a “Contract with Hawaii,” modeled after Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America, to spell out just how Republicans would change things. Armed with advance copies of that contract, she has recruited candidates in winnable districts. All are running in open seats, have the benefit of not facing a primary opponent, and have gone through a vigorous training program designed by Gene Ward, the minority floor leader in the state house.

Among the candidates that Ward has helped train is Val Okimoto, a former special-education teacher who is of Japanese and Filipina ancestry. Another is Sai Timoteo, who is active in Native Hawaiian issues in her lower-income district and has worked as an executive in the hotel industry.

Ostrov acknowledges that Hawaii is currently a one-party state, but she sees genuine opportunity for Republicans if they run candidates who reflect the state’s diverse population and the unifying principles of its ethnic groups. “The cultures in Hawaii all share a belief in family, a work ethic, opportunity, and law enforcement,” she told me. “The more that it’s obvious that one-party rule is undermining those values, the more I believe we’re going to make gains both this year and in the future.”

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