POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 7, 2010
Almost every place in the country, Republicans are rejoicing. Except here.
And there's good reason. The same 2010 election that swept the U.S. House of Representatives and many governors' mansions into the GOP column left Hawaii with a dubious distinction: Hawaii now has a state Capitol with the worst partisan imbalance of any legislature in the nation. Now 88 percent of Hawaii's legislative seats are held by Democrats, overshadowing Rhode Island, with its 84 percent Democratic control.
In the wake of what they must see as a disappointing outcome on the home front, Hawaii Republicans need to confer on ways to groom new candidates who show potential to run competitive races and get elected. Having at least one strong opposition party offers broad benefits to the general public. It enables a healthy exchange of competing ideas and provides a counterweight to the majority's exercise of power in the Legislature. Specifically: Majority party privileges include setting up committees with their leaders and agendas. It helps to have a robust minority keeping watch to ensure openness in decision-making.
The Nov. 2 elections did usher in three new faces for the Republican caucus in the state House of Representatives, bringing the total to eight of 51. But the succession of retired state Sen. Fred Hemmings by Democrat Pohai Ryan leaves the upper chamber with a single GOP voice, that of Sen. Sam Slom. He may be a veteran senator, but Slom can't be everywhere at once.
An outside observer might be stunned by the fact that eight years of Republican leadership in the state's executive office hasn't narrowed the persistent partisan gap. But that's the fact: Gov. Linda Lingle has had no electoral coattails to benefit candidates listed beneath her under the GOP banner. Granted, it doesn't help that Democratic leaders at the Capitol keep such a tight grip on power; it's hard to entice someone to run as a Republican with such meager hope for effecting change. But that remains the proper mission of the GOP organizers. They must draw on supporters with experience in the business sector or community groups, or bright young contenders who show potential as an officeholder at the entry level.
The current leaders of the Hawaii GOP -- principally party Chairman Jonah Kaauwai and Executive Director Dylan Nonaka -- aggressively recruited candidates and succeeded in contesting more offices statewide than their predecessors. Unfortunately, many were weak contenders, either because of a thin resume or a nearly single-minded focus on what was seemingly the central social issue among Hawaii conservatives: defeating any renewed effort to pass a bill legalizing civil unions for homosexual couples.
While the issue is a legitimate rallying point that energized a base of supporters, especially from churches, the successful candidates were the ones who appealed to a broader constituency. A review of the vote breakdown from the Nov. 2 election shows a growing number of pockets where the GOP is ascendant, especially in Leeward and Central Oahu. With the right candidate who can attract moderates as well as conservatives, Republicans could begin to build their numbers.
Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, who won the 1st Congressional District's special election in May, lost the seat last week to Democrat Colleen Hanabusa -- but grew solid support in his bid. Party affiliations aside, Hawaii's electorate must realize the need for intellectually agile, issue-oriented and articulate candidates like Djou and Lynn Finnegan.
The 2010 election should be instructive to the GOP that there is a viable political constituency here. Hawaii has elected Republicans who have contributed capably to the debate over public policy, and there seems to be a growing number of voters who could put more of them in office in the future.