One of Hollywood’s great underdog stories is found in the Rocky movies starring Sylvester Stallone.

David Chang, the chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party, took his future bride Beth Fukumoto to see the films — all six of them.

“Americans love underdogs,” Chang told party delegates at their annual convention Saturday in Kaneohe. “The bigger the hill you have to climb, the sweeter the victory. And that’s Hawaii Republicans.”

It’s an awfully big hill to climb, like ascending Mauna Kea wearing slippers.

The Democratic Party of Hawaii controls all four congressional seats, the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature. The local GOP’s marquee players, former Gov. Linda Lingle and former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, got skunked in races for Congress last year.

Like any party, Republicans also have internal divisions, including vocal members that say the party isn’t conservative enough.

But there are glimmers of unity, and resurgence.

There’s younger blood, like Chang — who was re-elected Saturday to another term as chairman — and his wife Fukumoto, who is now minority floor leader in the Hawaii House of Representatives.

The party’s finances are back in the black, too, after a rough spell of debt in which the GOP risked losing its Kapiolani Boulevard headquarters.

Perhaps most significantly, Hawaii’s favorite son in the White House is beset by a series of scandals that has some Republicans already using the “I-word” — impeachment.

Could Hawaii Republicans be on the cusp of historic change — like Hawaii Democrats and the “revolution” of 1954 that brought them to power?

“Republicans will rise again,” proclaimed Barbara Marumoto, the former House representative.

Party Building

Perhaps not anytime soon, though.

As Chang told Civil Beat, rebuilding a party takes time, maybe a decade. He said the focus for now would be on picking up more seats in the Legislature; most of the seven House GOP members were in attendance Saturday, while GOP Sen. Sam Slom sent a video message.

Chad Blair

Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona.

Fukumoto said Republicans helped block the possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage and increasing the general excise tax. Her party, she said, also was successful in opposing a single-use bag fee and a tax on sugary drinks.

Fukumoto’s goal for 2014: defeating the governor’s constitutional amendment asking voters to allow use of public funds for private early education.

“It’s a terrible idea,” she said, something delegates seemed to agree with.

While they may seek more legislative seats, it’s unclear whether Republicans will be able to field viable candidates (that is, someone with greater electoral traction than, say, Cam Cavasso) for the top political jobs of governor, U.S. senator and U.S. representative.

While Abercrombie is running for re-election — so far, without a primary opponent — and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa are duking it out for Schatz’s seat, no top shelf Republican has stepped forth.

Lingle, who gave the party’s Lincoln Day Dinner keynote last month, was not at the convention. “She’s finished,” several party insiders told me.

Neither was Djou, who several sources said was thinking about running for governor or Congress. “He’s still popular,” another delegate claimed.

Chad Blair

GOP member Mike Palcic and a flag-bearer.

Another well-known Republican, former Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, was warmly received by delegates. In his keynote, Aiona said that if he did run for office next year — and he said he was thinking seriously about it — it would be against Abercrombie.

Aiona urged delegates to embrace the aloha spirit and recognize that they are first Hawaii Republicans rather than national Republicans. He also warned against party infighting.

Aiona did not name names, but several other convention speakers also mentioned potentially destructive party divisions.

“No. 1, we need to unite our family, not attack each other,” said Miriam Hellreich, the party’s national committeewoman. “Imagine if all the negative emails you had received in the last several months had been used in a positive way to support our candidates.”

Hellreich did not name names, either, but it seemed she was referring to Willes Lee, a former state party official who has been persistently critical of the party’s direction under Chang. Lee, who was on hand Saturday, is promoting a sort of party in exile, the Hawaii Republican Assembly to help Republicans address the issues that he and his allies believe is weakening his party.

Chad Blair

Former state Rep. Barbara Marumoto.

Among his concerns, Lee is upset about the party’s fiscal challenges and the fact that there are less elected Republicans in Hawaii than there were a decade ago. His biggest concern, he told Civil Beat, is that the local party has moved away from its conservative roots and base.

Asked about Lee’s criticism, Chang called him “disgruntled” and said Lee was upset at having lost several recent elections to be a national committeeman.

Another party insider told Civil Beat that Republicans did not capitalize on their first presidential caucus last year. While thousands showed up at polling places to vote for Mitt Romney or his opponents, this delegate said Republicans did not follow up by getting those motivated voters signed up for the party.

Gladys Gerlich Hayes, who unsuccessfully challenged Chang for the party chairmanship, said she was upset that her party did not meet this year on Maui, as had been planned. The party has rotated its annual convention every other year to hold it on a neighbor island.

Chad Blair

Standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.

George Fontaine, Maui County chairman, said “logistical problems” prevented Republicans from meeting on the Valley Isle.

For his part, Chang said he was proud the party had moved from being $110,000 in debt to posting a modest surplus under his tenture.

“We had to get our house in order,” he said, noting that he took over at a difficult time following the resignation of former chair Jonah Kaauwai.

Chang said the party had attracted 5,000 new members and 1,000 new donors. The challenge now, he said, was to grow grassroots support, something that could be helped by the Republican National Committee’s plan to launch a $10 million door-to-door campaign.

Echoing RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who addressed delegates via video, Chang said his party’s task is to make more people realize that they are actually Republicans but just don’t know it yet.

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