In 2016, I wrote an article for Honolulu Civil Beat about why Republicans fail in Hawaii. This was of course the year when a real estate mogul/reality show star who held no previous office managed to beat a former U.S. senator and Secretary of State and capture the White House for Republicans.

Therefore, after this midterm election which has not only seen Democrats triumph yet again — after decades of success at the polls — statewide as well as nationally taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives in Congress, this year, it is only fitting and just to examine just why Democrats have been so effective politically in Hawaii.

I have isolated a few key reasons.

History

The Democratic Party gained control of the then Territorial Legislature in 1954 and what became the state governorship in 1962 and — with the exception of Linda Lingle in the 2000s becoming governor for two terms — have held on to the reins of power in this state for more than 50 years.

LG elect Josh Green w/ son, 6-year old Sam Green, daughter 10-year-old Maia Green celebrate with Gov Ige and First Lady Dawn Ige on stage at the Dole Cannery Ballroom.

Josh Green, the lieutenant governor-elect, and Gov. David Ige celebrating with family members at a Democratic Party of Hawaii election night gathering  at Dole cannery.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One reason for Democrats success in Hawaii is because they can — both in overt and subtle ways-remind voters of the state’s past as what can only bluntly be called a racist, white supremacist oligarchy controlled by a dovetailing of economic interests (the formerly dominant sugar and pineapple industry interests) along with the then political power, the Republican Party which largely controlled the Legislature and governorship (then appointed by the president).

These interests kept the state’s major ethnic and racial groups largely such as Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, etc. largely shut out of the professional and higher wage job markets and stuck largely in lower wage and labor intensive job markets.

Thus the triumph of the Democratic Party was predicated on more populist economic and political lines and sought the inclusion of communities of color in Hawaii not just as voters but as candidates. Thus historically, the two party are easily bifurcated and identified based on History: The Party of the Elite: Republicans vs the Party of the People: Democrats. Whether this is still a valid demarcation in this day and age is debatable. This dichotomy nonetheless remains active and influential to this day.

Organization

The Democratic Party in Hawaii is dependent on a degree of organization amongst certain groups and sectors including professional assemblies, trade labor unions and other institutions and organizations. These provide not only the grassroot grunt work needed (phone-banking, door to door campaigning, sign waving) but serve as a ready made constituency for Democratic candidates and politicians that thus can be replicated election year after election year after election year. Democrats also treat every election year as if something is at stake for them — even though Democrats dominate the state House and Senate in the Legislature year after year after year.

Thus this can incentivize their core constituencies to help candidates and down the line vote for candidates. Because of the Republican Party’s historical dependence on monied and powerful business interests, their role was as stewards of oligarchy and plutocracy but not as a real, effective political party that can compete with other parties. As a result they eventually atrophied in the post-World War II era as they lacked real organization and structure and lacked a large enough voter base and constituency.

Messaging

The emphasis on such terms as “unity” through such events as unity breakfasts and events and the media and PR optics of presenting a strong collective front is tied to a link to the Democrats history of spearheading some degree of economic and social reform in Hawaii through such legislative accomplishments as the Pre-Paid Health Care Act.

Thus the Democrats push the necessity to do what is is the interests of the common good and the larger society on any issue whereas the Republicans usually take a individualistic, self-interested point of view that doesn’t quite fit in the socio-economic rubric of Hawaii. They also come off as a body of self-interested parties and personalities riven with friction and acrimony and thus disunited.

Marketing

The ability of the Hawaii Democratic Party to market itself as the mainstream has in my view been one of the greatest factors to its long term success. This is partially built on a track record of winning candidates for office election after election. Thus each success in each particular legislative or congressional district demonstrates that Democrats are the sober, sound choice for voters. Stability and continuity are key components here. On the other hand, Republicans come off as fringe and often far from the norm. Their candidates are sometimes marginal figures.

Race And Ethnicity

The broad based ethnic and racial fabric of the Democratic Party has probably been in its biggest strength in a state that is largely constituted and populated by people of color. The Democrats have been able to elect governors of varying ethnicities (Hawaiian, FilipIno, Japanese) as well as a diverse array of legislators, city and county council members and mayors. Thus when candidates of different ethnic and racial groups run for election, they can appeal to individuals from their groups and communities for possible votes.

Democrats treat every election year as if something is at stake even though they dominate the state House and Senate year after year after year.

The Republicans on the other hand haven’t been able to define themselves as a multiethnic or racial party largely because of its historical affiliation with the haole planter elite as largely a caucasian constituted party.

The success of the Democrats in Hawaii over more than 50 years is remarkable even when considering the cliches of “blue” and “red” states nationally. The innate socio-political emphasis on polite and unspoken modes of order no doubt serves as a framework for this success.

In a sense, the Democratic Party in Hawaii is sort like a popular eatery like Zippy’s: Year after year, people keep coming back and there is constant business. Much like restaurants, voters in Hawaii like their old favorites.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author