Janie Gueso, the Republican nominee for Ewa Beach’s House District 40, doesn’t consider herself to be a politician. 

“I’m a people-tician,” she says. 

Sitting outside Silva’s Grocery & Liquor, Gueso explained that the difference between the two is that she’s “thinking about people more than just straight politics.” 

It’s her first time running for public office, making her one of 72 first-time candidates to file as a Republican this election cycle.

Facing a perpetually dominant Democratic force, the party managed to more than double its number of candidates this cycle compared to recent years, in large part thanks to state chair Lynn Finnegan’s efforts to make candidate recruitment a key focus for the Hawaii Republican Party.

This intentional focus is needed for Republicans, said Finnegan. 

The Democrats have a sort of pipeline available: “They become workers at the Capitol … there’s a structure there where they can learn to be a candidate and learn to be a legislator by being employed,” said Finnegan.

While fledgling Republican candidates could also pursue this route, there just aren’t as many slots given their party’s significantly smaller number of state legislators, with only four in the House and one in the Senate. And fewer legislators also means fewer incumbents who can cruise to reelection. 

That means more attention is needed both for finding potential candidates, and for convincing them to expend the necessary time and energy to run.

Civil Beat interviewed a number of first-time GOP contenders for this story and while their political views aren’t all the same, these candidates in Democrat-run Hawaii are keen to portray themselves as separate from the national Republican Party’s shift further to the right.

Hawaii Elections Don’t Favor Republicans

Gueso hadn’t paid much attention to politics before running, she said. 

This doesn’t mean she’s unknown in her community. Her family’s been running Silva’s, a staple of Ewa Beach, for four decades, and she engages in community service with GOP Sen. Kurt Fevella, a family friend.

So when GOP Rep. Bob McDermott decided to vacate the seat he’s held for 10 years and run for U.S. Senate, Fevella encouraged her to run, she said.

McDermott’s since been helping her campaign, she said — coaching her on things that ordinary citizens might not know, like giving her information about the district’s borders so she can know where to focus campaigning.

Gueso’s friendship with Fevella made it feel somewhat natural to run as a Republican, she said, noting that the Democratic party, with its streak of corruption incidents, could use some opposition. 

But she doesn’t fully embrace the Republican Party as her ideological home, saying that she hadn’t paid enough attention to politics before running to have fully formed opinions on either side of the aisle. 

Ultimately, “It’s too bad you have to pick a party,” she said. 

Other candidates feel this too. 

“I’m proud to say I was a card-carrying nothing since I started voting at the age of 18,” said Kathy Thurston, who’s running her first political race as the Republican nominee for Kailua’s House District 50.

Republican Candidate, Janie Gueso
Janie Gueso, the Republican nominee for House District 40, stands in front of Silva’s Grocery & Liquor, the business her family has run for four decades in Ewa Beach. David Croxford/CivilBeat/2022

Like Gueso, Thurston also frames herself as not being a politician. 

Thurston, a graduate of Kamehameha Schools, comes from a career in contracting, where she built enough of a name that people on both sides of the aisle have encouraged her to run for office over the years, she said.

A stint volunteering on the Kailua neighborhood board – along with a lot of thinking and praying – eventually persuaded her to do so, she said, and her background as a business owner helped her realize she holds moderately conservative positions. 

Still, she said, “I wish that oftentimes we would take labels off.” 

At this point though, she sees the Democratic Party as being synonymous with Hawaii’s problems, namely affordability.

“We’ve had 60 years now of pretty much full Democratic rule here in Hawaii. If people are really happy with the way it is, I guess they’re going to keep voting that way,” said Thurston. “But I think there’s a greater majority – a silent majority – that needs to know that there’s hope.”

Political Neophytes Need Hand-Holding

Jillian Anderson said she got a job working as a legislative analyst for the House Minority Office shortly after graduating college.

“I am very young,” said Anderson. “I just turned 25, so it really wasn’t even in my realm of thinking that I would run for office, let alone so young.” 

When Finnegan reached out and encouraged her to try, it wasn’t an instant yes, Anderson said. 

That came more gradually – only after repeated casual meetings, and after gaining more familiarity and confidence with the legislative process through her work over the next few months.

Finnegan also brought in a focus group, said Anderson, which “really helped me build the confidence to see that things that I was just believing in my own head are what other people are believing too,” referring to her concern about a rise in crime in Waikiki. 

 On June 1, she filed to run for Waikiki’s House District 24 seat. 

The previous Republican to run for the seat was Nick Ochs in 2020, who founded the far-right extremist group Hawaii Proud Boys and who recently pleaded guilty for his role in the Jan. 6 riot in Washington D.C.

Ochs lost his House race by about 30 points.

Candidates also received training opportunities after they filed – sometimes there are group phone calls or zoom calls or in-person meetings revolving around specific topics, Anderson said, whether that be interpreting primary election results or discussing how to craft policy. 

Other topics include public speaking, filing campaign finance reports, and even where to buy materials for sign waving. 

“They had a small binder for us and they just printed off all these different vendors,” said Jamie Detwiler, a first-time candidate and the Republican nominee for Mililani’s House District 37.

Detwiler comes to politics after years as a social worker for the government, which she retired from at the end of 2020.

Growing up on the Windward side of Oahu, she took pride in her Hawaiian cultural heritage, and initially wanted to major in Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii Hilo before switching to sociology. She still makes leis in her free time, she said — which is both a hobby and a continuation of her family heritage.

Detwiler grew up in a politically conservative household, but she only loosely followed politics until the end of 2020, when in retirement she started paying closer attention and began volunteering for the Republican Party. Some of her priorities include lowering taxes and regulations for entrepreneurs, as well as promoting neighborhood watch programs to increase public safety.

Both Anderson and Detwiler also advocate for a return to single-day, in-person elections, and Detwiler lists prominent election denier Seth Keshel as one of two endorsements on her website.

When Finnegan and other party officials talked about fielding candidates for the 2022 cycle — emphasizing the need for representation and a multi-party system — Detwiler took note, letting the idea simmer for nine months as she prayed about it before deciding to file.

Detwiler especially values the advice imparted by experienced candidates and officeholders, like Rep. Lauren Matsumoto of House District 38, who Detwiler said grew up dancing hula with her daughter.

An Uphill Battle

Identifying and training candidates is aimed at electing new Republicans – but “the bottom line is almost none of them are electable here,” said Neal Milner, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii and Civil Beat columnist.

National politics makes the Republican brand too unpalatable for many Hawaii voters, he said.

Some districts are less Democratic than others.

Maui Politics - Trump
The national Republican Party’s rightward shift poses a challenge for local candidates in Democrat-dominated Hawaii. Bryan Berkowitz/Civil Beat/2020

Gueso’s Ewa Beach district is considered purple, given McDermott’s status as one of the only elected Republicans in the Legislature and the fact that even some Democrats ran with conservative positions on guns and abortion.

And her social networks will surely help her run against the Democratic nominee Rosebella Martinez, who’s unsuccessfully tried to unseat McDermott since 2014.

Gueso also tends to avoid taking a side in national political debates. For instance, she stops short of agreeing with the GOP platform on abortion.

“If I was to become pregnant right now at this point in time in my life … I would nourish the life of that child,” she said. “My choice is to be pro-life. But I’m also very glad that I have that choice.”

Gueso wouldn’t say she is pro-choice though, saying that people shouldn’t just pick one side in the abortion debate and refuse to consider other perspectives.

Sheila Walker, another first-time candidate who is running as the Republican nominee for West Maui’s Senate District 6, also tries to distance herself from the mainland parties’ polarization. 

She grew up in the Midwest and worked in the New York City fashion scene, moving to Maui in 2016 after a family reunion there, she said.

While she was raised in a household of Republican values, she said, her interest in running for office catalyzed in November 2020 when she protested a California delegation visiting the luxury Fairmont Kea Lani resort for a conference, which struck her as hypocritical at a time when Democrats’ national narrative was to avoid spreading Covid-19 by staying home. 

Walker’s West Maui race pits her against the popular Democratic state Rep. Angus McKelvey in a bid to replace longtime Sen. Rosalyn Baker. It’s perhaps made tougher by Walker’s campaign website listing strongly Republican views on national issues, like her stance to ban critical race theory in schools and cut off public funding for Planned Parenthood.

But she’s not worried about that.

“Obviously I can’t do anything about the gas prices, but I want people to know where I stand,” said Walker. 

Walker, like some of her fellow Republican candidates, said she’d rather not be affiliated with a party.

She even briefly pulled papers to run as a nonpartisan, though scrapped the idea because the state’s primary election system makes it hard for nonpartisans to advance to the general.

Walker prefers to go door to door to interact with people, where they can get to know her beyond the “R” next to her name on the ballot.

“I’m not some crazy right-wing fanatic that’s going to try to change Maui. I’m not trying to turn this state into something that it’s not — I want to preserve what’s here and listen to the people,” she said.

But Walker’s belief that the Chinese Communist Party has infiltrated the Democratic Party, which she said accounts for Covid and an increased focus on globalism, complicates this image.

The fanatics, Walker said with a laugh, would be “those kinds of public figures that are really out there screaming the whole ‘Trump won’ kind of thing. And maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, I don’t know. That’ll come out in time.”

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