Neal Milner: Hawaii's Republicans Are Just Not Crazy Enough To Win - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Hawaii’s midterm election is already over and done for.

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Democrats will overwhelmingly win all major offices, including the governorship. Republicans will hardly make a dent in the Legislature.

Plus, the election has been as quiet as our rail stations in rush hour.

So, let’s talk about Oregon instead. Now there’s a place with an election that Hawaii’s Republicans should envy, especially its extraordinary governor’s race.

You think Hawaii has had a lot of Democratic governors? Oregon leads the nation in the number of consecutive terms that state has had a Democratic governor.

The last Oregon GOP governor was Victor Atiyeh, the short guy with glasses whose statue Hawaiian Airlines passengers see as soon as they get off their Portland flight.

Atiyeh was, as a lot of GOP politicians were back then, a Linda Lingle kind of Republican.

It’s been only a dozen years since Linda Lingle, Hawaii’s last Republican governor, finished her second and final term in 2010.

Things in Oregon are different this time. There is a good chance that the Republican candidate Christine Drazen will win in the race between Tina Kotek the Democratic candidate, and independent candidate Betsy Johnson, who is likely to siphon off Democratic votes.

Why there but not here? Why is Oregon close to breaking the pattern while Hawaii Republicans remain stuck in the mud? Oregon highlights what needs to happen for Hawaii’s GOP candidates to be serious contenders.

The comparison shows just how stuck Hawaii’s GOP is right now and how hard it will be to right this.

It also highlights why we may be better off if Hawaii’s Republican Party remains weak.

Besides the strong independent candidate, the Oregon governor’s race has things going for it that Hawaii’s race does not and hardly ever does. Certain parts of Oregon are very conservative and there are Republicans in Congress. The Oregon House of Representatives is split 50-50.

Oregon consistently has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation. Hawaii regularly is near the bottom.

Here is a much larger, immediate difference: money, money, lots of money.

Drazen, the Republican candidate, has loads of campaign money, mainly because Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, initially gave $3 million to the independent candidate, then changed his mind and swooshed Drazen another million.

A million here, a million there.

To compare, here’s the Hawaii governor’s race money math:

Phil Knight alone: $4 million (plutocrat wealth)
Josh Green’s war chest: $3 million (“Player” wealth)
Duke Aiona’s war (sunken) chest $177,000 (Allowance money)

Green’s money comes from all kinds of sources, big and small as well as here and there, including Hawaii’s heavy-hitting professions and companies.

Aiona’s fifth largest gift, only $5,000, is from Da Kitchen, a tiny Maui restaurant, “the place where local comfort food and Da good vibes meet.”

What to choose, what to choose — money from banks, health care companies and big-time engineering firms or a complimentary order of deep fried musubi?

In political races, fervor begets fervor, which begets more resources. Which begets even more fervor. The vicious circle of buzz.

Buzz is exactly what underdogs need.

As the Oregon governor’s race got closer, it took on national interest. Joe Biden has been there stumping for the Democrats while Drazen has emphasized the support she has from two Republican governors in Democratic states, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin and Maryland’s Larry Hogan.

No influential Republican either from here or the continent has actively campaigned for Aiona.

Can you even name an influential Hawaii Republican whom people turn to for advice or advocacy on anything?

The media is giving the Oregon governor’s race national coverage. Hawaii’s national coverage is essentially the two words in any national election analysis chart: “solid D.”

It’s become a fundamental. Hawaii’s Democratic candidates benefit from quiet, ho-hum elections with low turnout. If those things stay the same, so will Democratic dominance, no matter how much chatter there is about Hawaii’s need for a two-party system.

Bob McDermott, left, and Duke Aiona are the two best-known Republicans running for election this year. But they’re shying away from the issues that are motivating GOP voters elsewhere in the country. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Consider issues mobilizing Republican voters on the mainland: a hatred of elitist liberals; a belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen; anti-abortion; anti-woke; continuing support for Donald Trump.

You wouldn’t know this from the Aiona campaign. He gives every signal that he does not want to talk about those things. Aiona says he is personally against abortion but can do nothing about it.

He does not talk about election fraud even though a serious number of people have harassed Hawaii’s Office of Elections with false claims.

Attacking liberal elites? No sign.

Instead, what the voters get are the same slogans about the need to change, corruption and the dangers of one-party dominance. So old school moderate Republican, so futile.

Hawaii’s Republicans do so badly that I feel sorry for them and wish they could do the good things that opposition parties can do.

This is of course so different from the passion and mayhem taking place in the rest of the country.

Better dull than crazy, right? Well, maybe so. But also, maybe not.

Hawaii may be for now an oasis of quiet sanity as most of the rest of the country tumbles toward the destruction of democracy, but as long as Hawaii GOP’s sanity continues, the state will continue to be almost completely dominated by the Democrats while voting turnout will remain very low.

Truthfully, though, Hawaii’s Republicans will lose if they try to be like Republicans elsewhere.

Screwed if they do, screwed if they don’t.

But, hey, that’s me. Even though I have a lot of problems with today’s Democrats — many, many problems — I lean liberal.

Let me take a step back, though, and try to put myself in the place of the average Hawaii voter. From that perspective, it’s hard to see any way the state’s Republicans can thrive.

There is no indication — none — anywhere in the U.S. that any political party but especially a Republican party can thrive through moderation.

Nationally the trend among Republican voters and candidates is entirely the opposite. Politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene who began on the fringes of the party have become more and more influential.

The estimate is that half of the many 2020 election deniers running for office are going to win, including officeholders who administer the elections. The 2024 election will be even worse.

To sum up: The Hawaii Republican Party’s business as usual strategies simply don’t appeal to enough Democratic and independent voters. Running the usual way is a sure loser.

The more drastic alternative of becoming like other Republicans? It’s certainly not clear that would be any more effective. Still, that’s probably what people in the know said about, say, Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania voters only a few years ago.

That’s also what people in the know said about Donald Trump.

Hawaii’s Republicans do so badly that I feel sorry for them and wish they could do the good things that opposition parties can do. And there are many good things. Hawaii’s politics are harmed without them.

But under the circumstances, I shove my sympathy aside and hope that Hawaii’s GOP continues to lose.

For me, that’s depressing and adds to the sadness and fear I feel about politics today.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

For me the decider is Greene is for a woman's right to bodily autonomy and Aiona is not. That in itself is a decider for me.

988zadie · 5 months ago

Hawaii Democrats have given voters many things to lament. Corruption, housing, homelessness, drugs, environment and crime… So why has the Republicans not been able to make inroads in Hawaii? The far right movement within the Republican party gaining influence in the GOP does not show the people of Hawaii a better future. Not in Hawaii where the Aloha spirit is still a value that is cherished by locals and many transplants. Not in a state made up of different minorities. Not in a state that values civility over hostility. Some might blame the Democrats dominance in Hawaii as the result of apathy. Far from it. Local are watching and listening. Put up a quality candidate (from either party) and people will come out and vote.

Mnemosyne · 5 months ago

Would be nice if election ballots remove the party affiliation given that majority of residents have no idea who the candidate is, what they stand for and what policies they want to implement. As long as the candidate is on their "team" then thats all they want to know.

Kken · 5 months ago

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