It was 1962, three years after Hawaii became a state.

A World War II veteran named Daniel Inouye was finishing his second term in the U.S. House, Republican William Quinn was governor and state lawmakers were working on bills related to the New York World’s Fair and raising the minimum wage to $1.25 an hour.

It was also the last time Republicans held a majority in either chamber of the Legislature. There were 14 Republicans in the 25-member Senate and 18 in the 51-member House.

Democrats since then have taken nearly complete control of the Legislature, the congressional delegation and the state’s top executive post for all but one other governor. Republicans have lost every seat in the state Senate and only have five members left in the state House.

More Hawaii Republicans have been exiting the party’s doors than entering in recent years, and political analysts don’t see the trend changing anytime soon. Civil Beat/2010

Political analysts and former lawmakers expect another poor GOP showing this election. In 23 of the 64 state legislative races, the party is not even fielding a candidate in the Aug. 11 primary.

In other contests, it’s so lopsided against entrenched Democratic incumbents that Republicans stand little to no chance of winning in the Nov. 6 general election.

The House will more than likely drop down to four Republican-held seats with Rep. Andria Tupola giving up hers to run for governor.

Sailau Timoteo, her potential successor, may have had a shot at keeping the westside Oahu seat in GOP hands but the state Elections Office proclaimed Friday that she is no longer considered a candidate because she is not a U.S. citizen. She immigrated from American Samoa.

“They won’t even have enough for a basketball team,” said Neal Milner, political science professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii.

“It’s a continuation of a downward historical trend that’s probably gone on for 40 years and was only interrupted briefly by electing a Republican governor, Linda Lingle, and a few more legislators,” he said. “But after her first term, it started downhill again.”

Lingle and 22 Republican state lawmakers rode a wave of resentment of Democrats into office in 2002. She easily won re-election four years later but the GOP had already begun losing legislative seats again, dipping to 15 in 2006.

GOP seats in the state House. 1959-2018 


GOP seats in the Senate, 1959-2018. 

Colin Moore, director of the UH Public Policy Center, said Republicans won’t pick up any seats this election. He said the four-member congressional delegation is firmly in Democratic hands and Tupola, who’s expected to win the GOP primary, is too new to beat the winner of the Democratic primary, either Gov. David Ige or Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa.

“It means the one-party state dynamic will continue, and it’s hard to imagine how it will ever change,” he said. “That’s a problem.”

It’s a similar story for Hawaii’s representation in Washington, D.C. Voters have sent Democrats to represent them in the U.S. Senate since 1977 and have only elected Republicans to the U.S. House thrice since statehood.

Rather than government by parties, Moore said, state lawmakers have governed by forming groups of like-minded members and then creating alliances to pass legislation and determine leadership.

“It’s very difficult to tell what’s going on in the Legislature because there’s no incentive for Democrats to air their dirty laundry in public, which means less transparency,” he said. “So we’re going to be stuck with a political party that runs by favors and factions and doesn’t really feel the need to articulate clear policy visions.”

The House and Senate each have their own factions, with conservative-minded members often aligning together.

Sen. Sam Slom, who was the chamber’s lone Republican for six years before he lost re-election in 2016, provided an alternative position on bills moving through the Legislature. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Even in the House where there are five members, Milner said that’s just not enough to make a “powerful fuss” that brings an issue to light.

Common Cause Executive Director Corie Tanida said a stronger minority party would not only bring more policy debates to the surface but also boost the public’s understanding of the reasoning behind some of the decisions being made.

“On the floor a lot of items just sail through without much debate or discussion,” she said. “Having open debates is what democracy is about; we shouldn’t be shying away from them.”

When the majority caucus meets, it’s literally every member of the Senate who leaves the floor to gather in the private room. On the House side, it’s just the five Republicans who are left sitting there while the debate happens behind closed doors.

A stronger minority party could also help with accountability and transparency, Tanida said.

When Republican Sen. Sam Slom was in office, he started the Hawaii Open Budget website. He released state budget information in a format that made it easy for the public to understand, Tanida said, adding that the public was then able to ask questions and provide more informed feedback.

Slom, who was first elected in 1996 to represent Hawaii Kai and neighboring parts of East Oahu, was the last Republican in the Senate. He was its sole member from 2010 to 2016 when he lost to Democrat Stanley Chang.

Going from one GOP member in the Senate to zero also meant a loss of resources. The minority research office would prepare an alternative state budget, for instance.

Volunteer assists at early voting at Honolulu Hale. 4 aug 2018
The lack of two-party competition is blamed for Hawaii’s worst-in-the-nation voter turnout. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Slom, who is not running for election, said the prospects of Republicans picking up a Senate seat this year are slim. He said the outlook is not much better on the House side, though he does see a chance for the party to regain control of the open Mililani seat.

Rep. Beth Fukumoto, who is giving up the central Oahu seat to run for Congress, was first elected to the House as a Republican. She changed parties last year and now espouses progressive views despite a conservative voting record.

Republican Val Okimoto, a first-time candidate who serves as a director of the Mililani Town Association, will face the winner of a four-way Democratic primary that includes former state lawmaker Marilyn Lee, Zuri Aki, Dean Hazama and Trish La Chica.

“We’ve got good candidates,” Slom said. “But they’re having a hard time getting recognition. They can’t match the spending of the Democrats or the super PACs so it’s going to be difficult.”

The most active super PAC in the past few elections has been funded by the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, the state’s largest private union. Be Change Now, the group’s latest name, has dumped nearly $3 million into this year’s Democratic primaries.

Switching Sides

Fukumoto is only the latest Republican to defect. Since 2005, at least five others switched parties and all but one are still in office. Reps. Aaron Ling Johanson, James Tokioka and Karen Awana along with Sens. Mike Gabbard and Gil Riviere were all Republicans before they became Democrats.

Awana, who is not running this year, lost her seat to Tupola in 2014. She lost again in 2016 in the Democratic primary against Stacelynn Eli, the frontrunner this election.

Moore said Republicans are losing their most talented members, especially young up-and-comers like Fukumoto and Johanson, who became a Democrat in 2014 less than two months after winning his election as a Republican.

And it’s not like the GOP is getting Democrats to switch parties. The only example in recent memory is Rod Tam, who ran for state Senate in 2016 as a Republican against Democrat Karl Rhoads after holding office for years as a Democrat.

Tam, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to 26 misdemeanor crimes of falsifying documents and theft while serving as a Honolulu City Council member, lost by 43 percentage points.

“It’s a perfect illustration of their problem,” Moore said. “They lose Beth Fukumoto and they get Rod Tam.”

Charles Djou speaks wiith Ann Kobayashi at the Pearl Country Club in Pearl City, HI, on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.(Civil Beat photo by Ronen Zilberman)
Former Congressman Charles Djou and Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, seen here on election night in 2016, are both Republicans who became Democrats. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

Milner said it’s not surprising to see an uptick in people leaving the Republican Party, which as of March also includes former Congressman Charles Djou, whom many expect to make another bid for higher office in 2020.

“There’s a good reason for jumping ship — they wouldn’t get elected again,” Milner said. “It isn’t like they went through some kind of progressive conversion.”

To Slom, it’s a multi-faceted problem. He said the Republican Party needs to vet its candidates better and it needs to field more candidates so Democrats can’t just win unopposed.

“If you don’t have the candidates, you don’t have a chance at victory,” he said. “And there are some that should never be wearing the Republican label.”

House floor session legislature
The last time Republicans held a majority in either chamber of the Hawaii Legislature was 56 years ago, when they controlled the Senate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He sees a correlation between people voting too. Hawaii went from having the best voter turnout in the country to the worst over the course of several decades.

But mail-in voting or making it possible to register to vote on election day are not going to change one-party dominance. He said it’s already easy to vote in Hawaii but without two-party competition there isn’t much motivation.

“When we run out of the money to give to these special interests, then and only then are people going to start questioning and looking for something else,” Slom said.

“With all this, I have always remained optimistic and I still do,” he added.

Republicans also struggle with a branding issue, Moore said.

GOP candidates have generally distanced themselves from the national party, he said, but that is harder to do under the bombastic Republican President Donald Trump. It’s why Fukumoto and Djou left the party.

“They can’t run away from the Republican brand now which has become the brand of Trump,” Moore said, adding that’s not what voters want here.

Hawaii rejected Trump by the widest margin in the nation, with 61 percent voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton and 29 percent voting for Trump.

Hawaii has only given its four electoral votes to a Republican presidential candidate twice since statehood — Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984.

“It’s not as if there are no Republicans in the state,” Moore said. “But there are only a few places where they’re concentrated enough to win.”

He does not see a path for Republicans to reverse the decline, at least in the near future.

“There’s room in this state for people who are critical of the reigning Democratic Party,” Moore said.“It’s kind of depressing that it’s going to get even worse.”

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