Republicans might benefit from anger over civil unions
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 2, 2010
Democrats expect to hold overwhelming majorities in the state House and Senate in the November elections but could drop a handful of seats if Republicans capitalize on voter angst over the economy and civil unions.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 45-6 in the House and 23-2 in the Senate, lopsided advantages that even many Democrats privately concede are out of balance with the electorate. Democrats have been expecting losses for the past three election cycles under Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, but they have instead made gains due largely to national trends and the inability of Republicans to field high-quality candidates.
Democrats predict they could lose three to five seats in the House and possibly one seat in the Senate this fall. Republicans have set the modest goal of doubling their numbers in both chambers. The GOP has found recruits for all but three races - after sitting out more than two dozen in 2008 - including many from the faith-based community who could harness concerns about civil unions among religious conservatives.
"We know that we're going to have some fairly tight battles," said Dante Carpenter, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
Dylan Nonaka, executive director of the state GOP, acknowledged that Republicans have fallen short in the past few election cycles. "This year I think there's a little bit of an anti-Democrat feel," he said.
Republican recruits, he said, "are not just flashy guys who are just going to raise money and do mailers; they are actually on the ground."
The GOP's faith-based candidates might also benefit from a separate voter education and outreach movement being organized by religious conservatives unhappy with the state Legislature for passing a civil unions bill, vetoed by Lingle.
"I think the faith-based community is looking to get more involved, and there's really only one party for them to be
involved in and that's the Republican Party," Nonaka said.
House and Senate campaigns are mostly driven by local issues, endorsements and the determination of candidates to walk door to door, wave signs and raise enough money to be competitive. But in campaigns where candidates are not as well known, particularly for open seats or when incumbents are running for re-election for the first time, state and national trends can seep into play. Sometimes, state and national tides can also take out veteran lawmakers who are vulnerable.
Democrats credit a late push for U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the presidential election for helping the party down the ballot in 2004. Democrats took advantage of President George W. Bush's unpopularity to help House candidates in 2006, when Lingle easily won re-election. Hawaii-born Barack Obama's sweep to the presidency helped several House and Senate Democrats win in Republican-friendly districts in 2008.
This year the national mood appears to be anti-establishment, with majority Democrats fearing heavy losses in Congress in the midterm elections. Local political strategists and party insiders believe there is a degree of that sentiment in Hawaii, but not the depth of voter anger that exists on the mainland.
House and Senate incumbents will face voters after back-to-back legislative sessions in which the state's budget deficit dominated. Majority Democrats raised state income taxes on the wealthy, the hotel-room tax and the conveyance tax on luxury homes in 2009 to help with the deficit. Democrats used a combination of spending cuts, special-fund transfers and payment delays to avoid an increase in the general excise tax or other broad-based tax hike this year to balance the budget.
Lingle vetoed bills that would have restricted high-technology tax credits and capped itemized deductions on upper-income taxpayers.
Lingle and Democratic legislators have said that the state's budget crisis was largely the result of the national recession and a global economic downturn - not anything that happened locally - and have so far escaped much public blame. The exception was teacher furloughs. Lingle, educators and the teachers union were criticized for agreeing to furloughs on classroom instruction days, while lawmakers were faulted for waiting until the end of session to set aside money from the state's Hurricane Relief Fund to help end furloughs in the coming school year.
House and Senate incumbents might also have to answer for a 36 percent pay raise that took effect in January 2009 as lawmakers prepared to cut state programs to save money. The pay raise was recommended by a voter-approved salary commission - and followed raises for the governor and her executives and for judges - but it has led to the kind of pitchfork populism that can influence angry voters. Lawmakers reduced their pay raises by 5 percent in 2009, similar to the pay cuts and furloughs agreed to by public-sector labor unions, but the move did not pacify critics.
"Overall it will have to be the preservation of jobs," state House Speaker Calvin Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Palolo Valley-Wilhelmina Rise) said of the issue that will likely matter most to voters.
Say said lawmakers can point to state investments in capital improvement projects that might help the construction sector rebound. He also said lawmakers should remind voters that they did not raise the GET or scoop hotel-room tax revenues that go to counties to balance the budget. He said a GET increase, which is favored by many labor unions, should be a last resort because it could be counterproductive to economic recovery.
The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have grown so large that competition often comes from within.
Say himself is facing a primary challenge - from Dwight Synan, a Realtor who might get progressive and union support - and both the speaker and the leaders of a rival dissident faction in the House are lining up potential allies from the list of Democratic hopefuls.
"I would hope that we could maintain what we have," Say said.
In the Senate, rival factions of Democrats are maneuvering behind the scenes for a leadership shake-up if state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa wins against U.S. Rep. Charles Djou (R-Hawaii) in urban Honolulu's 1st Congressional District in November.
State Rep. Gene Ward
(R, Kalama Valley-Queen's Gate-Hawaii Kai), who is unopposed for re-election, said Republicans can compete in what he describes as the "marketplace of ideas" even if their ranks at the state Capitol remain thin.
"The first one is jobs. The second one is jobs. And the third one is jobs," he said. "The economy. We have to get that thing into gear."
Ward said Republicans will likely campaign for tax incentives to help businesses retain workers and for reducing government regulation so businesses can expand. He said the GOP will continue to demand more accountability over state spending at the state Department of Education through a management and financial audit.
He also said Republicans would call for greater transparency in government. Without minority Republicans, he said, Democrats would likely rush most legislation through the House and Senate with little debate.
"I think people would like a little bit more transparency about government, how it spends its money, how we do our business as legislators," he said.