GOP faces intimidating challenge in Hawaii’s fall election
Enthusiasm about Sen. Barack Obama's presidential bid has created a major obstacle to Republican efforts in Hawaii.
With a popular Republican residing in Washington Place, Hawaii's GOP has had an opportunity to increase its strength in the Legislature from her coattails during the past six years. Instead, it has weakened, and this year's election could continue the nose dive. Party leaders need to examine the problem and renew the effort to achieve what at one point approached the semblance of a two-party system.
Hawaii's Democratic Party, in strong command of the Legislature, seems to be energized by the prospect of Sen. Barack Obama becoming the first Hawaii-born president. Nearly 10 times the 4,000 Democrats who voted in the 2004 caucuses swarmed polling places this February to cast more than three-fourths of their votes for the Punahou alumnus instead of Sen. Hillary Clinton. The enthusiasm undoubtedly will continue into November.
At this month's Republican state convention, Gov. Linda Lingle spoke about increasing the number of Republicans in the Legislature, but that was wishful thinking. Lingle led the ticket in 2002 and 2006, but the number of GOP members of the Legislature has fallen from 22 to 11, out of 76.
The most recent defection was conservative Republican Sen. Mike Gabbard of Makakilo, who switched to the Democratic Party last year. Numerous Republicans made similar moves in past decades not because of change in ideology, but in order to gain positions of influence as members of the inevitable majority party.
Supporters of libertarian presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, sought to move the GOP to the right at the state convention at Hilton Hawaiian Village and were angry that their effort was thwarted by Republican leaders. Although Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has had a lock on the presidential nomination since early March, the eccentric Paul continues his campaign, hoping for some sort of showdown at the Republican National Convention this summer.
Lingle has learned that moderation is the Republican road to victory in Hawaii; what might be considered the party's conservative base nationally exists in small numbers in the islands. Lingle supports rail transit on Oahu and Sen. Daniel Akaka's bill for Hawaiian sovereignty, both of which are opposed by the party's conservative wing.
What the Paul supporters regarded as autocratic behavior at the state convention risks driving them from the party. Plagued by defection of legislators to the left, Hawaii's GOP can hardly withstand an exit of voters to the right.
Even then, stability alone is not enough to make the Republican Party viable in Hawaii. Change is needed, but the shift demanded by the Paul camp would only accelerate the party's shrinkage.