LIHUE » Former Gov. Linda Lingle said yesterday that she will announce by the end of August whether she will run for the U.S. Senate next year, enough time for the Republican to decide whether she can help Hawaii in Washington, D.C.
Lingle, in an interview at the state GOP convention at the Kauai Beach Resort, said she is gauging the degree of support for a campaign in the islands and on the mainland.
Lingle said the possibility Republicans could capture the Senate after the 2012 elections should be an incentive for voters to think about political balance to U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and the other Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation.
"I just want to talk though the ability to make an impact in my state if I did go through it," she said. "Can I make a difference, a positive difference, for Hawaii?
"And, again, because the Senate is so close, if the Republicans gain control in the Senate, and I was able to win an election, it would be better for our state than to have only Democrats in our delegation."
Many Republicans attending the convention said privately that the party’s chances of being competitive in the Senate race drop significantly if Lingle chooses not to run to replace U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.
Even if Lingle does enter the race, Republicans understand that it will be difficult with Hawaii-born President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket for Democrats.
Former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou playfully referred to Lingle as "Senator, I mean governor," when he recognized her in the ballroom before his convention speech.
Djou — who would consider a Senate campaign if Lingle does not run, and another campaign in urban Honolulu’s 1st Congressional District if she does — told delegates they had to break the Democrats’ one-party dominance over the state’s congressional delegation and in the state House and Senate.
The former congressman said there are more non-Communist delegates in the National People’s Congress in China than there are Republicans in the state Legislature.
"What all of you have to decide here in this room is, do you want to accept that fact as reality, or do you believe that it has to change?" Djou said, adding that Hawaii needs a vibrant two-party system.
Delegates, hoping Hawaii will have more relevance in presidential politics and looking for an opportunity to build the party, voted for a proportional presidential caucus system next year. Republicans will hold statewide caucuses on March 13. GOP presidential candidates who pay the party a $5,000 filing fee will be on the ballot and will be awarded delegates in proportion to their vote totals.
The state GOP has until now selected state convention delegates in January and February and national convention delegates at the state convention in May, usually after the party’s presidential nominee has already been chosen.
Andrew Walden, editor of the Hawaii Free Press, a conservative website, told delegates that the change could persuade presidential candidates to compete in Hawaii. He said the interest in the caucuses, even if only a few thousand voters participate, could help the minority party recruit new members.
"The question here is very simple: Do you want to grow the party?" he asked delegates.
Jonah Kaauwai, the state GOP chairman, and Linda Smith, a former senior policy adviser to Lingle who now works with state House Republicans, were among party leaders who supported the change.
Smith said she doubts the caucuses would do much to build the party, but said they could make Hawaii more relevant in presidential politics. In a close race for the party’s nomination, she said, candidates have to shower attention on delegates nationwide, including those from small states.
"How relevant do we want Hawaii to be in the presidential selection process?" she asked delegates.
But other Republican leaders, such as former party chairmen Willes Lee and Brennon Morioka, said the party cannot afford the cost of the caucuses in an election year when the GOP is supposed to be helping local candidates.
Morioka said he did not think the caucuses would give Hawaii any greater "perceived legitimacy" in presidential politics.
Few Democrats participated in the majority party’s caucuses until 2008, when a record number turned out to support then-Sen. Barack Obama, swelling the party’s card-carrying ranks. Still, only about 37,000 voters attended the caucuses, a fraction of the more than 236,000, for example, who voted in the Democratic primary for governor last year.
Republicans also voted for resolutions to oppose a native Hawaiian federal recognition bill, to repeal the federal Jones Act that protects the domestic shipping industry from foreign competition, and to reject new taxes and fee increases.
Delegates heard yesterday that the party is more than $70,000 in debt and struggling with a $198,000 mortgage on its Honolulu headquarters. Miriam Hellreich, a veteran Republican fundraiser, said she would lead a capital campaign to raise money to pay off the mortgage. She announced that country singer Lee Greenwood would play a benefit concert for the party in August at the Koolau Ballrooms in Kaneohe.
While Lingle and Djou would likely receive significant national fundraising help if they were to run for Senate and Congress, the party’s lack of financial resources would have the most negative impact on state House and Senate candidates.
The party’s real challenge is not financial, but rather the constant battle to stay viable in a state firmly controlled by Democrats.
Kaauwai, who was re-elected chairman yesterday, said he believes the party has built a grass-roots organization and has identified enough prospective candidates to make gains at the Legislature next year.
"Is it going to happen in this election cycle? We think we’ll gain," he said. "I think it’s been years of the Republican Party just not being based on principle. I continue to go back to that. When you ask people, they go, ‘I cannot tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican.’
"And I think now we’re starting to draw the line on that."
Lingle, in her speech to the convention, honored the memory of late Kauai Mayor Bryan Baptiste.
She said it would have been much easier politically for Baptiste to be a Democrat. "He was a Republican through and through. He was a Republican, but he did it Kauai style."