Hawaii Republicans might be forgiven in late 2014 for having wished the year a hurried farewell.  Simply put, it was a tough 12 months. And 2015 thus far doesn’t seem like much of an improvement.

Not only did the party fall enormously short of bold new voter registration goals announced in the wake of passage of the state’s Marriage Equality Act, the GOP absorbed an epic beatdown last fall in Hawaii’s general election.  While the party was posting huge wins on the mainland, taking over the U.S. Senate and dramatically boosting its Congressional majority, it failed to win a single federal or statewide race in the Aloha State, despite mid-year predictions that Duke Aiona would be elected governor and Charles Djou returned to Congress.

Though Republicans had picked up a single seat in the state House, the gain didn’t last long, as House Minority Leader Aaron Ling Johanson announced in late December that he would join the Democrats. Representation in the state Legislature: eight seats out of 76 total.

Happy New Year!

Pat Saiki and Miriam Hellreich 8.23.2014

Hawaii Republican State Party Chair Pat Saiki, left, and Miriam Hellreich at a GOP function in 2014.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

State Party Chair Pat Saiki, who bitterly lashed out at Johanson for his defection, probably wasn’t made any happier by Aiona’s recent announcement that he had accepted the interim executive directorship of Hawaii Family Advocates, a group best known in recent years for its vitriolic and failed opposition to same-sex marriage.  That served as a reminder that every non-incumbent challenger put forth by the Republicans to challenge pro-marriage equality incumbents or non-incumbent nominees last fall lost, most by sizable margins.

Former two-term Gov. Linda Lingle – once a bright spot for a party that sought to build a new profile and prominence in state politics – added to the already challenging new year by announcing a few days ago her departure from Hawaii to be the chief operating officer for Gov. Bruce Rauner in Illinois.

While it’s hard to see where the state GOP goes from here, it doesn’t take a genius to understand their dilemma with rank-and-file voters. Hawaii is a state that prides itself on ethnic, cultural and racial diversity. Antagonistic, bitter and often painfully awkward Republican legislation, policy and messaging around issues associated with people of color, ethnic minorities, women and gays and lesbians goes over here like the proverbial lead balloon.  Kama’aina of all stripes might well wonder, “If that’s how they treat our favorite son, Barack Obama – the first African-American president, as well as a Punahou grad – what must they think of the rest of us?”

Mainland GOP voices are the most consistent offenders, but in a state where angry, wild-eyed Rep. Bob McDermott often emerges as the face of the Republican Party, they’re hardly alone.

No wonder, then, that the voter drive referenced above with an audacious goal of 25,000 new registrants by the fall elections, was estimated to have netted fewer than 1,000 new voters by November.  Turns out voting with your feet doesn’t require registration.

Speaking of Mr. McDermott and his influence in the state GOP, voters aren’t the only ones with whom party leaders face a dilemma. There’s a sense of unease among elected and appointed Republicans. While Rep. Johanson didn’t mention McDermott by name in announcing his party switch, it wasn’t tough to discern the kind of folks he might be talking about when he said, “I think many in the local Republican Party are becoming more narrow in their demand for ideological purity as well as in their demand for a combative tone and posture.”

Saiki probably didn’t make matters any better in her bitter, personal public broadside against Johanson, accusing him of sacrificing his principles and calling his switch “disgraceful.”

“It is no secret that running as a Democrat in Hawaii makes life much easier for any politician,” Saiki sniffed.

Notably absent from Saiki’s remarks was any sense of critical self reflection, any nod to the idea that in the wake of a significant party leader’s defection there should be any reassessment of how the party is conducting its affairs.  If anything, the subtext seemed to be, “If others don’t like us, screw it. We’re doubling down.”

And therein lies sad news for Hawaii. A dominant party in a two-party system performs better and is arguably more responsive to the needs and interests of voters when it is pressed and challenged by the opposition party.  Within that governing dynamic, elected officials rise to the occasion, competing to craft policy and legislation that best serves the public interest.  A dominant party with no such challenge on its flank runs the risk of becoming lazy and unresponsive – or worse yet, a thuggish bully.

State Democrats are no strangers to such criticism. Saiki decried the “Democratic machine” in her rant against Johanson – a familiar phrase for many in Hawaii and one seldom used kindly.

But it’s hardly up the Democrats to solve the GOP’s problems.  If Hawaii Republicans are to build a future for their party in the Aloha State, 2015 might be the right time to recall the skill for which those who first populated these islands are particularly well known: Time to chart a new course.


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