The Republican primary turnout surged to its highest level in almost two decades, with more than 20% of Hawaii’s voters identifying themselves as GOP supporters. It’s a change for a state that has long been dominated by Democrats.
Most voted by mail. They also turned up to vote in person at Honolulu Hale Saturday, eager to voice their concerns about high gas and food prices, their perception of governmental heavy-handedness during the coronavirus pandemic and outrage over what they called Democratic party corruption and ineffectiveness in handling the rail project and the Red Hill fuel leak.
The election represented the highest level of Republican voter participation in a primary since 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected president in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and 24.2% of voters chose the Republican ticket.
Some 73,448 voters voted Republican on Saturday, up considerably from 32,601 in 2018, the last non-presidential primary, according to state election data.
About 21.7% of voters picked Republican candidates this year, up from 11.4% in 2018, 15% in 2014, 15.6% in 2010 and 11.8% in 2006.
Typically turnout is bigger for presidential elections, but even so, this year’s numbers out-clipped recent decades there as well — 19% in 2020, 17% in 2016, 16.9% in 2012, 17.3% in 2008. The GOP turnout was 24.2% in 2004 and 29% in 2002 when Republican Linda Lingle became governor in a political upset.
The increase suggests a higher probability of more competitive races in the Nov. 8 general election than in the recent years. An increasing number of Republican voters could make it more difficult for Democratic legislators in conservative-leaning West Oahu to retain their seats.
The GOP gubernatorial nominee Duke Aiona, who has high name recognition after serving as lieutenant governor in Lingle’s administration, will face Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Josh Green.
Further shifts in the electorate often occur in the general election. In the primary, voters must vote only for one party or have their ballots invalidated, but the general election allows people to cross over party lines.
That happened in a dramatic way in 2016, when only 17% of the electorate selected the Republican party in the primary, but many Democrats voted for Donald Trump in the November presidential election, and he ended up with 29% of the vote that year in Hawaii.
That same thing happened in 2020, when only 19% of voters selected the Republican ticket in the primary election, but Trump won 34% of the vote in the state in the general election.
Republican voters are highly motivated this year because they are deeply disaffected with Democratic party governance, said Lynn Finnegan, chair of the Hawaii Republican Party. In a statement Tuesday, she described Republicans as “fired up and ready to take down the Democratic Administration in the General Election.”
The Republicans fielded 102 candidates for office this year, including several well-known public figures such as Aiona and mixed martial artist and fitness club owner BJ Penn.
Penn’s entry into the race had galvanized enthusiasm among the party faithful, with some supporting and others opposing his candidacy, said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii.
“There was a real race … and as a result, genuine enthusiasm on the part of Republicans,” Moore said.
Political analyst John Hart, a professor of communications at Hawaii Pacific University, said the rise in Republican voters may reflect a “general dissatisfaction with politics in general and in Hawaii, that means with the Democratic party.”
Republican Bob McDermott, who is running against Democrat U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, said he entered the race on one particular issue — Red Hill — because he believes that the water contamination threat is ongoing and that Schatz isn’t doing enough to solve the problem. He also knows he has little chance of winning due to the longtime Democratic hold on the state.
“I know what the odds are,” said McDermott, who is stepping down from his District 40 House seat to run for the U.S. Senate.
Finnegan said many people were enraged by what she called “government overreach” during the pandemic, when Democratic officials enacted and extended a long period of shutdowns, imposed mask and vaccination mandates and suspended in-person schooling.
Moore said that Covid policies stirred anger on all sides, “but especially Republicans, who were motivated to turn out to vote.”
Republican voters interviewed outside Honolulu Hale on Saturday echoed those concerns.
“I voted red all the way across,” said Kamalei Pai of Waimanalo. “The state has been run too long as blue. The whole regime is corrupt top to bottom.”
Jeremy Skinner of Honolulu, who recently retired from the military, said he was apolitical while serving but has become increasingly conservative. He said he thought the Covid shutdowns were ineffective and enacted “without research.”
“I hope someone with some common sense can get in so they can fix the problems of the past six decades,” Skinner said. “One party rule never works.”
He was accompanied to the polls by Jaimee Dinovo. “I usually bounce around” among the parties, Dinovo said, adding she is now leaning Republican.
Pui and Tara Vaisele of Kaimuki, who brought their two young children with them to the polls, said they were conservatives who want to vote in support of a “two-party system.”
Would they consider any Democrats? “Hell no,” Tara said.
Some people said they had switched to the Republican party because they disagree with Democratic party policies and practices.
Judith Marotta of Kailua, formerly an Independent who now considers herself a Republican, said she was unhappy about the mail-in voting system embraced by the Democrats because some of the ballot boxes she has seen are not being adequately guarded, making the process less secure than it had been in the past.
Shelby Cerwonka of Maunawili, who said she is a registered Democrat, said she was voting Republican this year because she was disgusted by Democratic party mud-slinging.
“I couldn’t bring myself to vote for any Democratic candidate,” she said. “They have destroyed and torn each other apart.”
Joel Borgquist, a volunteer for Republican senatorial candidate Tim Dahlhouse, said he believes more people are switching to the Republican Party. He was leading a sign-waving group across the street from Honolulu Hale and talking to voters as they passed by.
“A lot of people we’re talking to say this is their first time to vote Republican,” he said. “There is a lot of unhappiness with the corruption and that they aren’t being listened to by government.”
Juliet Won of Kalihi said she was voting Republican because of the way the Democrats handled what she called the “plandemic.” She said her teenage daughter became socially isolated and depressed when schools went remote because of Covid-19, which affected her academic performance.
“I don’t care for the Democrats anymore,” she said. “They destroyed my trust. I admired Obama — now forget it. I will stick with the Republicans.”
Despite the growth of Republican voters, the Democratic party continues to dwarf all other political parties in Hawaii, in a pattern that has lasted since soon after statehood. More than 240,000 voters cast their ballots for Democratic candidates in the primary, more than three times the number of Republicans, and Democratic candidates won more votes for every major post than Republicans did.
“The proof will be in the pudding this fall when we see if the Republicans can still hold this percentage in the general election,” Hart said.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Civil Beat. A long-time reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” “Isabella the Warrior Queen” and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.