Denby Fawcett: Trump’s Shadow is Hard to Shake for Hawaii’s Moderate Republicans - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Ask a politically moderate Republican candidate running for office in Hawaii about former President Donald Trump and he or she is likely to steer the conversation in another direction.

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Trump — like the name of Lord Voldemort, the nemesis of Harry Potter — is a word that remains unspoken by any Republican hoping to win over Hawaiiʻs Democratic and independent voters. Trump is he who must not be named.

But as the general election nears, Hawaii’s Democrats are expected to steer the conversation right back to Trump in an effort to try to dissuade voters from supporting the GOP gubernatorial ticket of Duke Aiona and his running mate Seaula Jr. Tupai.

In a phone conversation Sunday, Aiona said that tactic won’t work.

“Democrats will bring up Trump primarily as distraction to deflect attention from the real problems affecting Hawaii that they have failed to solve such as the lack of housing, the high cost of living, homelessness, education and crime,” he said. “Trump is not the president. There is nothing he can do to affect policy in Hawaii.”

True. Trump is not in office, but he is increasingly impossible to ignore — dominating headlines about his influence in the defeat of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and three other GOP House incumbents — all four punished for voting to impeach him. Two more pro-impeachment Republican incumbents are still fighting for their political lives, and four other GOP House members who voted to impeach Trump are gearing up to retire.

Pundits are dubbing Trump the titular head of the Republican Party. Never mind that he’s still banned from Twitter and Facebook and is no longer president. He’s found ways to heckle, harangue and push himself to the forefront — on many days getting more media than President Joe Biden.

GOP contenders for statewide office like Aiona and Tupai have only the slimmest chances of winning in this longtime blue state. To do so, they would need to rally independents, moderate Republicans and Democrats to support them.

Supporters move a Duke Aiona banner before the start of the press conference at the Capitol Rotunda.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Duke Aiona is working hard to gain support as a moderate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Flashing the image of Trump behind the pictures of Aiona and Tupai in a TV commercial is a fast way for Democrats to try to make the case that a vote for Aiona and Tupai equals support for the national GOP’s anti-abortion and gun rights platforms, initiatives that don’t resonate well with most island voters.

Aiona is working hard to gain support as a moderate Republican like former Gov. Linda Lingle. But running mate Tupai came off as far more conservative in interviews and appearances before the Aug. 13 primary.

In the days counting down to the November general election, expect to see Democrats use the Trump card as a weapon against Tupai for his opposition to abortion and his belief in promoting gun owner rights in Hawaii including “the right to carry handguns outside their home to protect themselves from deadly criminals.”

Democrats can also be expected to portray Tupai as in cahoots with voting fraud conspiracy theorist Seth Keshel because of Tupai’s appearance with Keshel in a candidate panel discussion and another session here in June sponsored by Audit the Vote Hawaii.

“Trump will be a factor in this election.” — Political analyst Colin Moore

Keshel was in Hawaii then as part of his countrywide quest to try to spread Trump’s mistaken view that the election was stolen from him.

Tupai did not return calls or emails requesting to speak about this.

Aiona made clear in the Hawaii News Now Super Debate that he did not think the election was stolen from Trump. He said: “Do I think it was stolen? I have no evidence that it was stolen.”

Aiona, 67, said he met with Tupai after the primary and found him to be an eager learner who has pushed himself academically, getting a master’s degree in music from Washington State University. Aiona says Tupai is good to have on the ticket for his ability to reach out to understand the concerns of younger voters.

Tupai, 43, is a first-time candidate for political office who grew up in Monterey, California. He is currently the full-time senior pastor of Overcoming Faith Center in Hilo.

He has worked as a coach for Kamehameha Schools on its Hawaii island campus, for Hilo High School and for the Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy in Hilo.

“Tupai is going to be an anvil around Aiona’s neck,” said political campaign strategist and attorney Rick Tsujimura.

Tsujimura is the author of  “Campaign Hawaii: An Inside Look at Politics in Paradise,” which recounts lessons he’s learned from his half century of participating in campaigns for politicians ranging from John Burns to Kirk Caldwell.

He says Democrats will use Trump’s name as a convenient shorthand to make independents feel uncomfortable about voting for Tupai and Aiona especially in light of larger issues such as the conservative, GOP-driven campaign to end a woman’s legal right to an  abortion —  a key concern to voters everywhere.

primary Honolulu Hale Republican turnout
A man waves a Trump flag outside Honolulu Hale on the last day of the primary. Republicans had a larger than usual turnout. Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2022

Aiona, however, said he sees Tupai as “a tremendous asset” and said his running mate is not an ultraconservative but a smart team player who is willing to learn and work together to move forward with a unified message of reasonableness about gun owner rights and abortion.

“We both believe that life begins at conception and ends at death. But opposing the legal right to an abortion in Hawaii is a fight we will not get into. We can’t change the law,” he said.

Although, in an interview during the primary, Tupai said the issue of abortion should be on a special ballot to let the people of Hawaii decide if they are for or against abortion.

Regarding the right to carry a gun in public, Aiona said that if elected, his administration will wait to see what kind of legislation Hawaii lawmakers pass in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling June 23 that made laws in six states including Hawaii unconstitutional for their restrictions on carrying firearms outside the home.

Aiona said that if elected, he would veto any measure that severely restricts Second Amendment rights as affirmed by the high court.

With the internet, social media and TV networks reporting political news 24/7, Hawaii voters are more focused on national politics now, making it difficult for the local GOP to push Trump into the background even in a non-presidential election year, political analyst Colin Moore said.

“Trump will be a factor in this election,” said Moore, an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

And what can the Hawaii GOP do to try to keep Trump behind the curtain in the races it hopes to win here when he is so clearly out front on the center stage nationally? The same thing party moderates have tried to do in the past. Talk around him. Try to make him go away.

Will that work? No. It will not work. Like the fictional Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, Trump has staying power.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

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