Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s star has been rising on the mainland, where she is popping up on lists of possible presidential contenders in 2020. But her popularity has fallen here at home.
Two years ago, 64 percent of statewide respondents to a Honolulu Civil Beat poll approved of Gabbard’s performance. A similar poll conducted last month found that her job approval rating had dropped to about 50 percent, after she drew criticism for meeting with Donald Trump before his inauguration and for visiting Syria surreptitiously.
She was viewed negatively by 29 percent of poll respondents, while 21 percent were unsure.
And in a finding that sets her far apart from the other members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, Gabbard had almost the same statewide approval rating from Republicans (48 percent) as from Democrats (49 percent).
Gabbard’s approval rating was higher (58 percent) in her 2nd Congressional District, which includes rural Oahu and all of the neighbor islands. But even there it declined from a 67 percent approval rating in the 2015 poll.
“Tulsi’s support has dropped mostly in CD1,” said Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which conducted The Civil Beat poll. “She is much more popular in CD2, which is her home district. She has taken some more controversial stands in the last year or so. It’s not surprising this has sharpened the focus on her.”
Greg Tupper is one of those CD1 poll respondents who doesn’t like what he’s been seeing from Gabbard.
“She’s good, she’s eloquent, she’s many things,” said Tupper, a civilian employee of the Defense Department who lives in Honolulu. “But stepping outside of representing her people is a little weird … She’s reaching, but she’s reaching too soon.”
The decline in Gabbard’s favorability ratings brings her back in line with other members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation. About 55 percent of respondents gave Sen. Brian Schatz a positive rating, compared with 53 percent for Sen. Mazie Hirono and 48 percent for Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, whose 1st Congressional District includes urban Honolulu.
Even some Republicans expressed enthusiasm about the all-Democratic delegation.
“Anything they could do to slow the Trump train wreck would be welcome,” said poll respondent Mark Stitham, a doctor who lives in Kailua, in an interview with Civil Beat.
The poll was conducted May 18-24 and queried 956 registered voters statewide. The survey, which included 629 voters on Oahu, sampled 67 percent landlines and 33 percent cellphones, and has a margin of error of 3.2 percent.
The positive attitudes of Hawaii residents toward their representatives in Washington stands in sharp contrast to how Congress’s overall performance is viewed by the American people. In the past 10 years, Americans have soured on Congress, with 70 percent of voters saying it is doing a bad job. Trump’s approval rating has also dipped below historic lows for newly elected presidents.
But despite the negative political atmosphere in Washington, more than twice as many people found reasons to praise Hawaii’s delegation as chose to criticize it.
About 55 percent of the voters polled judged Schatz favorably, and only 23 percent viewed him unfavorably. He was particularly strong among senior citizens, with 58 percent of those older than 50 saying they approved of him.
“Schatz eventually will become another (Sen. Daniel) Inouye,” said poll respondent Paul Bowskill, a retired advertising executive who lives on the Big Island and said he had known and admired the veteran senator who died in 2012.
“(Schatz is) on good committees, he’s not making waves,” said Bowskill. “I think he’s slowly and quietly moving and he will end up with a decent amount of power.”
Hirono’s favorability ratings were only slighter lower than Schatz’s, with 53 percent of voters saying they had a positive impression of her, compared with 28 percent saying they had a negative opinion. Her biggest political support comes from senior citizens of Japanese or Hawaiian descent.
Hirono’s support was more strictly partisan than the rest of the delegation. About 75 percent of Democrats viewed her positively but only 20 percent of Republicans did.
About 48 percent of the voters polled viewed Hanabusa favorably, compared with 27 percent who viewed her unfavorably.
Tupper is a particular fan of Hanabusa.
“She’s smart, she’s dedicated and she wants to make things better,” he said.
The most marked change in voter opinion involved Gabbard, long a darling of national media who climbed even higher into the political limelight after she championed Bernie Sanders last year in the race for the presidency. Her political independence has won her both praise and criticism.
Some of that criticism came in early January when she met with President-elect Trump at his home in New York City before the inauguration, stirring rumors that she wanted to join his administration, which she denied. Then she raised eyebrows by traveling surreptitiously to Syria to meet with despotic Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, in what she described as an attempted peace parley.
Several voters said they admired Gabbard, but were surprised and disturbed by some of her recent actions, which some called opportunistic and overly ambitious.
For a Democrat, Gabbard has an unusual amount of support among Republicans. Poll respondent T.R. Stanton, a retired construction worker who lives on the Big Island, is one of those who likes her.
“I voted for her because she’s a veteran and I’m a veteran,” Stanton said. “Once she realizes her constituents don’t approve of some of her actions she will change. So far I’m more on the favorable side than the unfavorable side.”
He called Hirono “terrible, a follower, not a leader.”
Stanton, a Republican who supports Trump, also said he “doesn’t much care for” Schatz. And he called Hanabusa “the worst.”
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.