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The Hawaii Republican Party needs a win in November.
Even picking up just one or two legislative seats might help slow the Democratic wave that has engulfed nearly every elected office in the islands.
The vast majority of House and Senate races were decided in the August primary or because many incumbents had no opposition. But there are a few key contests to watch on Nov. 6, especially in Ewa, central Oahu and the island’s windward side.
Hawaii Republican Party Chair Shirlene Ostrov said the main goal is to reverse the trend of losing seats, so the party doubled down on its support in the most competitive races.
“We’re trying to make incremental changes to our Legislature, so a couple of seats is a huge thing for us,” she said, underscoring the need for a viable two-party system.
The Republican Party did not field a candidate in 23 of the 64 state legislative races up for election this year.
“Fundamentally, it’s important to have a competition of ideas,” Ostrov said. “It could possibly get our voter turnout up if voters know they have a choice and that choice could make a difference.”
Her Democratic counterpart agrees.
Hawaii Democratic Party Chair Keali’i Lopez said if Republicans won a seat or two, it wouldn’t speak so well for her leadership but it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
“Whether Democrat or Republican, in the end we’re citizens who want to see a healthy democratic process and that often does mean we need to have more than just one party in control,” Lopez said, noting her concern extends to struggling Libertarian and Green party candidates.
But Lopez said she still believes Democratic candidates best reflect Hawaii’s values and that’s largely why there is such dominance.
“For the Democratic Party, the concern that I would have is that many Democrats presume that Democratic candidates are going to win and therefore don’t turn out for the general election,” she said. “We need Democrats to understand that every race is going to be a tough race.”
The seat currently is held by Beth Fukumoto, who had been elected to it three times as a Republican — unseating Lee in 2012 by less than 5 percentage points. But Fukumoto switched parties last year and this year ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a progressive Democrat.
Voters have distinct choices to fill the empty seat.
Okimoto, who is socially and fiscally conservative, testified against the bill to legalize gay marriage in 2013 and opposes abortion except possibly in the case of rape or other extreme event.
She was also against the proposed constitutional amendment to tax investment properties to fund public education, an issue that is now moot in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the ballot measure.
Lee is a strong proponent of raising the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, supports women’s right to choose and favors marriage equality. She said it was her vote for same-sex civil unions in 2011 that caused evangelicals in the district to mobilize and replace her with Fukumoto the following year.
Both are dedicated community servants, with Lee involved the past four decades in a wide range of Mililani issues and Okimoto active in the Mormon church and the Mililani Town Association.
Political office was never something Okimoto had considered before party officials approached her. She said she was content as a substitute teacher, raising her two daughters with her husband.
But she said that after praying about it, the idea of furthering her public service made sense, rekindling a feeling she had on a yearlong church mission in the Philippines during a break from college at Brigham Young University.
“I wanted to give voters an opportunity to have a choice in who they want to represent them,” Okimoto said.
Walking the district, she said she heard over and over that residents “feel a disconnect” and don’t think they can trust their public officials.
“I’m a good reflection of the district,” Okimoto said. “We don’t want someone who has been priming their whole life to be a public official.”
Lee, who has racked up endorsements from unions and environmental groups, said she wants to return to the Legislature to advocate for issues that have struggled to gain traction.
The retired nurse wants to resume her fight for paid family leave, something she began pushing for nearly 20 years ago to help people take care of their family responsibilities as well as work.
“I can’t understand why Hawaii as the most progressive state doesn’t have it,” she said.
Lee, who served eight terms in the House, also wants to focus on long-term care for the elderly in light of the “silver tsunami” barreling down on Hawaii, along with disaster preparedness and a constitutional amendment for victim’s rights.
“I’m probably the best person to really represent this community because I know it like the back of my hand,” she said. “My roots are as deep as the breadfruit tree out here.”
Lee had $722 in campaign cash on hand as of Aug. 11 after spending about $14,000 on the election up to that point.
Okimoto had $17,700 on hand after spending about $14,000 during the same period.
Over on the windward side of Oahu, former GOP Rep. Richard Fale is trying to regain a House seat by challenging Democratic Rep. Sean Quinlan, who’s finishing up his first two-year term.
Quinlan narrowly ousted Republican Feki Pouha by 1.5 percent of the vote in 2016 to win his seat.
Fale gave up the seat when he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate against Republican-turned-Democrat Gil Riviere in 2014. Two years prior, Fale beat Riviere in the Republican primary for a House seat.
Riviere and Fukumoto are not the only Republicans who have defected over the past decade or so. Reps. Aaron Ling Johanson, James Tokioka, Karen Awana and Mike Gabbard also became Democrats and went on to win elections.
It’s unclear from campaign spending records just how serious Fale is in trying to win — or just how worried Quinlan may be about winning a second term.
The next campaign spending reports, due Monday, may shed more light on the candidates’ fundraising and campaign spending. The reports will cover the period from Aug. 12 to Oct. 22.
Fale did not spend or raise any money for his race between Jan. 1 and the Aug. 11 primary, the most recent campaign finance reports show.
He had $26,881 on hand and has held just one fundraiser, in September.
Quinlan, who held three fundraisers in December, has raised $56,600 since the beginning of the election period, including $20,000 from his family.
Lopez said Quinlan has been a strong legislator and will do more in his work with House leadership if elected to another term.
In Ewa, Democratic Party officials are pretty confident that Rep. Matt LoPresti will win the open Senate race against Republican Kurt Fevella, who lost his bid to unseat Sen. Will Espero in 2016 by 22 percentage points.
Democrats also feel fairly certain former Rep. Rida Cabanilla will regain her House seat, which LoPresti is vacating for his Senate bid. She’s running against Republican Chris Fidelibus.
But Ostrov isn’t so sure. She sees an opportunity in the baggage that the Democratic candidates in both races are carrying.
LoPresti was caught removing his Democratic opponent’s fliers at homes in a heated primary battle that saw Senate leaders coming out in support of his competition, lobbyist Alicia Maluafiti.
He apologized for the poor judgment and went on to handily win the primary.
The state Campaign Spending Commission fined Cabanilla in 2014 for improper campaign expenses, including a golf bag and meal at a restaurant where she explained the purchase in a single line in the report by saying, “I need to eat too.”
LoPresti ousted Cabanilla in the election held later that year.
Ostrov said she has been canvassing the district with Fidelibus.
Lopez said it’s a “tight race” but if the Democrats who helped LoPresti win in the primary come out to vote in the general, he’ll be able to win the seat.
Without a win in one of these races, Republicans are expected to lose another seat this election, which would take them down to just four seats in the 76-member Legislature. There are no GOP senators.
They had been expected to hold GOP Rep. Andria Tupola’s seat with a popular replacement, Sailau Timoteo. But the state Elections Office deemed the American Samoa-born candidate ineligible due to residency restrictions. So with Tupola running for governor, the westside Oahu seat is expected to turn blue.
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