Joe Webster on the Big Island just wants to be taken seriously.

Webster is one of two Republicans running for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which represents rural Oahu and the neighbor islands.

He’s a former PayPal employee who now owns a company that rents Jeeps to tourists. He describes himself as a businessman and a problem solver, someone who wants to use his seat in Congress to help the state solve its affordable housing crisis.

But he also understands that the fact that he’s a Republican means he’s easily dismissed in Hawaii politics.

Republicans in Hawaii have struggled for years to gain traction in federal politics. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

No Republican has ever won the seat for Hawaii’s 2nd District, and only three — Hiram Fong, Pat Saiki and Charles Djou — have ever represented the state in Congress since statehood in 1959.

“We know it’s a long shot historically speaking, but I think people’s mindsets are different these days,” Webster said.

Webster is not your traditional Republican. He’s pro-choice, supports gay marriage and would vote in favor of stricter gun control regulations, including a ban on assault weapons. He said his son is a survivor of a school shooting in Nebraska.

He also believes Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.

The same can’t be said for Webster’s primary opponent Joe Akana, who ran for CD2 in 2020 against Democrat Kai Kahele.

Akana attended a “Stop the Steal” rally in Honolulu on Jan. 6, 2021, which was the same day a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election. Akana told a KITV reporter at the time that he believed Trump to be the victor over Biden. He also questioned the results of his own race, which Kahele won handily, 58% to 28%.

Joe Webster says he sees a path to victory even though he’s a Republican running for federal office in deep blue Hawaii. Submitted

In May, Akana posted a campaign video to YouTube describing the global Covid-19 outbreak as a “plandemic.” He then criticized the education system for trying to “indoctrinate our keiki into programs such as critical race theory, sexual education and pedophilia.”

From Webster’s perspective, such messaging is too extreme for Hawaii. He also blames it for holding down others in the party who want to build a winning movement.

“If the GOP is going to be successful here we have to start looking at — and I’m just going to say it — normal candidates,” Webster said. “We need people with common sense, not the conspiracy theorists or the folks who have their heads in the sand because we need to be representing all of the people, not just the handful on your side.”

Akana’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview.

The GOP has struggled for years to field a competitive candidate in a federal race, and 2022 appears to be no different.

Of the 10 Republican candidates on the ballot, only one, state Rep. Bob McDermott, has any meaningful political experience. A handful, however, like Webster and Akana, are raising money, sign waving in the community and hiring political consultants to help spread their message to prospective voters.

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One thing they all have in common is that they want to give Hawaii voters a choice.

McDermott is easily the most recognizable name on the GOP ballot. He’s vying for the chance to unseat U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, and is running as a single-issue candidate.

McDermott wants to put pressure on Schatz and others in Hawaii’s federal delegation to shut down the Navy’s bulk fuel storage facility at Red Hill, which last year leaked gallons of jet fuel into the aquifer, sickening thousands.

Schatz knew Red Hill was a hazard, McDermott said, and didn’t do anything to address it until it was too late.

“I’m putting my career on the line to make a point,” McDermott said. “Red Hill is the hill I’m going to live or die on.”

He understands his prospects are bleak.

RepresentativeBob McDermott gives a short prayer before floor session begins at the Capitiol.
Rep. Bob McDermott is the best-known Republican running for federal office this year. But he’s not raised any money and is largely focused on getting the Red Hill fuel facility shut down. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Schatz is a well-liked and well-funded incumbent, who has more than $3 million in his war chest.

McDermott on the other hand hasn’t raised any money for his campaign, and instead has used his position as an elected official to try to push his campaign messaging to the people.

“I know what the probabilities are and that’s why I haven’t raised any money,” McDermott said. “I don’t want to take money from the food bank or my friends and neighbors for a race that most people think is Don Quixote chasing windmills.”

McDermott doesn’t have a clear path to the nomination.

Four others are on the ballot, including Timothy Dalhouse, who like McDermott is an ex-Marine. Dalhouse is a recent transplant to Hawaii and lives on the Big Island, where he runs a project management company and enjoys scuba diving with his wife.

Dalhouse invested $150,000 of his own money into his campaign with much of it going to The Lukens Co., a Beltway marketing firm that specializes in direct mail and has a high-profile list of Republican clients, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The company, which recently renamed itself TLC Political, also boasts on its website of working with former President Donald Trump.

U.S. Senate candidate Timothy Dalhouse 

Dalhouse has been targeting Republican voters with ads stating that he’s a combat veteran on a mission to stop “Socialist Democrats” from defunding the police and allowing “illegal immigrants” into the country.

His mailers include images of Blue Lives Matter flags, crime scene tape surrounding President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and a photo of Trump giving a thumbs up in Dalhouse’s direction.

“I can’t allow Brian Schatz to have a job for life because no one is challenging him,” Dalhouse said. “I have the ability and the desire to come in here and be a serious candidate, with serious resources and a serious message of hope to fix the problems that we’re facing in Hawaii.”

Reducing the cost of living in the islands is Dalhouse’s top priority, and he sticks to GOP talking points about the need to reduce the tax burden on businesses while pushing for the deregulation of industry.

Dalhouse in particular wants to reform the Jones Act, a century-old federal law that requires cargo being shipped between U.S. ports to be carried by vessels that are American-made, owned, operated and flagged.

Proponents of the legislation say that the Jones Act stabilizes the U.S. maritime industry, supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and is necessary for national security because shipbuilding and repair is critical in times of war. But Dalhouse doesn’t see why Hawaii should bear the full financial brunt of the policy.

If elected, he said he would like to explore possible exemptions to reduce the price of goods coming to the islands.

“It’s protectionist legislation that stifles competition,” he said.

McDermott disagrees, saying the Jones Act is “America First” legislation because it protects jobs and national security interests.

“That’s a red herring that Republicans have used for years and I’ve never agreed with it,” McDermott said. “It’s easy to blame the Jones Act, but what are we talking about– two cents more for a can of Spam? That’s ridiculous.”

The only other Republican congressional candidate who’s reported raising any campaign money is Conrad Kress of Kailua.

Kress is a former Navy SEAL who spent more than four decades in the military, including as a physician’s assistant.

Conrad Kress is running as a Republican for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District. Submitted

So far, Kress has received more than $42,000 in contributions in his quest to unseat U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who is seeking his third consecutive term representing Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.

Similarly to Dalhouse, Kress says he’s running because people are upset about inflation and the high cost of living in the islands. He also says the federal government needs to do more to address emerging threats in the Pacific, particularly from China.

More than anything, he said it’s important to give voters an alternative to the Democratic Party, which he says has been in control for far too long and has repeatedly failed the people of Hawaii.

“Let’s change the dialogue and look at other ways of doing things,” Kress said. “If we have a free exchange of ideas a lot of people will realize that I don’t belong in the Bishop Museum under glass as a museum piece reminding people of times gone by. There are still solutions that we can bring to the table.”

Hawaii has only had two Republican governors since 1959, William Quinn, who served until losing to Democrat John Burns in 1962, and Linda Lingle, who was first elected in 2002 in the wake of an economic crisis and a series of public corruption scandals involving Democrats. She was reelected in 2006.

In order to survive in politics, a number of Republicans switched parties or have run in nonpartisan races, such as for county council.

The GOP’s struggles were on full display during a recent gubernatorial debate.

The Republican gubernatorial candidates, Duke Aiona, BJ Penn and Heidi Tsuneyoshi, said they knew they were underdogs, but acknowledged that they need to stick together. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Lingle’s former lieutenant governor Duke Aiona was asked to comment on the lack of experience of one of his opponents, mixed martial arts fighter BJ Penn, an opportunity that would normally result in a sharpened attack from an experienced politician.

Aiona, however, refused to engage. Instead, he thanked Penn and fellow GOP candidate, Heidi Tsuneyoshi, for running at all.

“To run in this state as a Republican takes a lot of courage,” Aiona said. “We need a two-party system, we really do.”

Penn added to the camaraderie when he said he looked at Aiona and Tsuneyoshi as two “soldiers” standing next to him in an impossible battle.

“It’s us against the unbeatable Democratic establishment,” Penn said to a round of applause.

Diamond Garcia, vice president of the Hawaii Republican Party, acknowledged that the GOP candidates competing in major races — particularly those at the federal level — will struggle to garner more than token support from conservatives in the islands.

The goal of the party, he said, is to harness the current mood in the islands, which he says feels similar to 2002, and encourage more people to run for office.

Many people are still struggling financially from the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic and increased costs caused by supply chain shortages and inflation. There have been numerous public corruption scandals, too, including the recent arrest and conviction of Democratic state lawmakers J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen, who were caught taking bribes in exchange for political favors.

More than 100 Republican candidates are on the ballot this year, which Garcia said is the most the state has seen in decades.

Garcia himself is running for a House seat in District 42, which covers Varona Village, Ewa, Kapolei and Fernandez Village. He’s unopposed in the primary.

Hawaii Republican Party vice chair Diamond Garcia 

If the GOP can secure seats in the Legislature and on county councils, Garcia said, then those candidates can later launch legitimate campaigns for higher office by building out a base that goes beyond party identity alone.

“The only Republicans who have won statewide races for Congress and governor are those who are tried and tested,” Garcia said. “They have a track record of experience that proves that they are trustworthy and able.”

Outside of McDermott, many of the GOP candidates running for higher office are inexperienced in local politics or sending the wrong message to voters, Garcia said.

“One of the biggest reasons why our candidates don’t do as well is because they repeat the same old Fox News talking points over and over again, which doesn’t resonate here,” Garcia said. “If we’re going to be successful we need to address local issues in the community.”

John Hart, a professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University, sees the GOP gaining traction in nonpartisan races at the county level. If the party can build on that success, he agrees with Garcia that it could result in bigger wins down the road.

But Hart added he also doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. The party is just too weak.

“The Republican Party didn’t get destroyed in a day,” he said, “and it won’t get built in a day.”

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