Willes Lee is chairman of the Ted Cruz Hawaii Presidential Campaign, and he has faith in his candidate. Lee says the local volunteers for the U.S. senator from Texas make up the best organized of the Republican presidential campaigns here this year, and those volunteers are working hard.
Still, Lee casts a wary eye on the phenomenon that is billionaire Donald Trump.
“Across the board, he’s pulling everywhere. He’s pulling between 30 percent and in some cases up to 40 percent of the vote, and it really doesn’t matter what he says and what he does, he’s pulling that,” Lee said of Trump. “I can’t discount that that could happen in Hawaii.”
With Trump dominating much of the Super Tuesday voting, he has a momentum that suggests he could again carry the day when Hawaii Republicans gather Tuesday to decide which candidate will receive the support of Hawaii’s 19 GOP delegates to the national convention.
“It may not even matter what our local campaigns are doing, because we’re seeing this phenomenon across the states right now,” Lee said of the Trump campaign.
Hawaii Republicans overhauled their delegate selection process in 2012, a shift that attracted 10,000 participants to the contest that year between Mitt Romney and his rivals. Andrew Walden, chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party’s presidential caucus committee, expects a similar turnout this year, but he had 30,000 ballots printed just in case.
People who want to participate in the presidential poll can register to vote at one of the 44 Republican caucus sites around the state, and sign a Republican party card on the spot to become eligible to vote, Walden said. The caucuses will start at 6 p.m. and wrap up at 8 p.m.
Five of the candidates who qualified to compete in the caucus voting in Hawaii are still active: Trump, Cruz, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich. Jeb Bush also qualified for the Hawaii caucuses, but has since dropped out of the race.
A Hawaii Poll published early this year showed Trump is locally the most popular GOP candidate running for president, winning support from 22 percent of the voters who said they usually vote Republican and 16 percent of those who consider themselves to be independents.
Cruz had the support of 11 percent of Republican-leaning voters, while Carson had 9 percent and Rubio had 8 percent.
Trump is the candidate to beat, especially after his strong Super Tuesday showing.
“With or without an effective campaign, Trump has managed to pull people out across the nation,” Lee said. “To me it doesn’t matter whether they have county representatives, grass-roots organizations, a coalition — it seems like there’s a lot of angry people who just want somebody who has Trump’s kind of bluster and profanity, and they’ll come out anyway.”
Lee said the Cruz campaign has been building coalitions around the themes of “faith, life, veterans and Millennials.” That involved seeking the support of veterans organizations and younger voters as well as faith-based organizations and anti-abortion groups.
Erin Kealoha Fale, state chairwoman of the Rubio campaign in Hawaii, said she hears from voters who are worried about the message that Trump conveys but haven’t settled on an alternative candidate yet.
“What I’m hearing is that people know that Rubio is the only candidate who could beat Trump, but don’t really want to jump on any other bandwagon because they don’t want to offend their friends” who are supporting Cruz or Kasich, she said.
Fale said the people who do support Rubio are a diverse bunch drawn together by his “hopeful message” and his personal story that echoes the experiences of many people in Hawaii. He has an understanding of the pressures ordinary people face because of problems such as student debt or a bad real estate loan, she said.
“I think that the dynamic of all the candidates really has the potential to drive a big turnout,” she said. “Most of us really care about the Republican efforts here in Hawaii in general, and so regardless of which candidate wins, I think most of us are going to be really excited to see the turnout.”
Nathan Paikai, lead volunteer for the Trump campaign in Hawaii, predicted an “overwhelming” number of people will turn out for the caucus voting, and said he is concerned the 30,000 ballots the GOP printed might not be enough. “I know they’re going to show up,” he said.
“The consensus of the people that come up to me, they’re very tired, and some of them very frustrated, and some of them they’re just angry. They’re tired of hearing the same old same-old of what’s going on politically in America, in the state and here,” he said.
When asked to explain Trump’s appeal, Paikai replied, “He’s not a politician and he like make America great.”
He cited the huge national debt and the actions of the state Legislature as factors that worry people and make them turn to Trump. “When (lawmakers) need money, they steal from the kids and they steal from the kupunas,” said Paikai, who described himself as a “traveling prophet” with a ministry called It’s All His, It’s All God.
“Here we get some people who work two, three jobs, and we get other ones who no do nothing. So they come up to me and say, ‘Hey, uncle, why I gonna work when the state pay for my house, they pay for my food, they pay for my car, they pay for my phone, they pay for my medical. So, why I gonna work?’ ” he said. “So, those who have work have now voiced their frustration.”
Hawaii politics is so heavily tilted in favor of the Democratic Party that it is likely the state will support the Democratic nominee for president in the general election. However, campaign leaders said the caucuses offer the local Republican Party a valuable recruiting tool.
Walden said the race is still “wide open,” and interest in Hawaii Republican caucus voting has involved hundreds of new people who were not previously involved in party politics.
Lee said he also expects a good turnout given the national interest in the primary, but said that there has not been as much marketing, advertising or other publicity to focus attention on the GOP caucus voting this year as there was in 2012.
If there is a strong turnout, Lee said he hopes the local Republicans will capitalize on that and engage more people in party activities. That didn’t happen after the successful Hawaii caucus voting 2012, which was a “missed opportunity,” he said.
“What I’m hoping is all the campaigns are working so hard, between us and Trump and the Rubio guys, that the party takes advantage of this, but we’re not seeing that this year, either,” Lee said. “The desire for many Republicans … most of us in Hawaii, would be to see our local party become something other than irrelevant.”
Fritz Rohlfing, chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party, said it is wrong to suggest the party failed to capitalize on the turnout in the 2012 presidential caucus voting. The party reached out to all who signed up to participate in 2012, and some of the participants stepped up to assume leadership roles in the Hawaii GOP, he said.
“It refreshed the party with new leadership and new volunteers, and we built on it,” he said. “Rome was not built in a day, you know. It’s incremental, but it has benefited the party by bringing in new blood.”
Hawaii Republicans will gather Tuesday to decide which candidate will receive the support of the state’s 19 GOP delegates to the national convention.