Even as Republicans nationally celebrated the election of billionaire Donald Trump as president, Hawaii Republicans this week continued their slide into near-oblivion on the state political scene.
State Sen. Sam Slom, who is the last Republican left in the Hawaii Senate, lost his bid for re-election Tuesday, which means the 25-member Senate will now be made up entirely of Democrats.
In another setback for the GOP at the state Legislature this year, the small Republican caucus in the 51-member House was whittled down to just six members in the general election with the loss of Rep. Feki Pouha to Democratic challenger Sean Quinlan in the race to represent Waialua, Kahuku and Waiahole.
And perhaps the most disappointing race for Hawaii Republicans this year was Charles Djou’s loss to Democratic Mayor Kirk Caldwell in the race for Honolulu mayor. That was officially a nonpartisan contest, but Djou is a former U.S. representative and one of the most prominent Republicans in the state.
A mayoral win by Djou would have boosted the party image and might have helped to grow the party by opening up patronage slots at Honolulu Hale for promising Republicans, but that won’t be possible now.
Exactly what has gone wrong with the ailing state GOP is a subject of bitter internal party debate. The party has splintered into factions that engage in sometimes savage attacks on one another, and even the surviving six Republican members of the state House are locked in a 3-3 split within the GOP caucus.
Illustrating some of those divisions is a group called the Hawaii Republican Assembly (HIRA), which issued a press release after the Tuesday election calling for the entire state and county Republican leadership to immediately resign.
“The time for change is now overdue for Hawaii’s beleaguered, mismanaged, corrupt and out-of-touch Republican Party,” the statement said. “The few brave Republican challenger candidates on ballots across Hawaii got slaughtered last night by shocking proportions at the hands of their own party leadership.”
Eric Ryan, president of HIRA, said in an interview that party leaders were to blame for Tuesday’s GOP losses because they spent party funds on office expenses and overhead, leaving too little money to support Republican candidates for office.
State Rep. Bob McDermott, (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) has clashed with HIRA, and dismisses the organization as “three guys sitting in a basement eating Doritos and watching ‘Star Trek’ reruns.” He said HIRA’s allegations have hurt the party’s efforts to raise money.
However, McDermott recalls when there were 19 Republicans serving in the state House in 2002. He said the party was stronger when then-GOP Chairwoman Linda Lingle aggressively recruited candidates and raised funds to help them run for office. That isn’t happening now, he said.
TODD Belt, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said it is important to have a viable minority party — no matter how small — to act as “the loyal opposition.”
“It puts limits on what the majority can do, particularly ethically,” he said.
Republicans in Hawaii have failed to replenish their bench, and don’t have enough young people running for office, he said. Many offices are left uncontested by the Hawaii GOP each election year.
“Whether they win or not, it is extremely important for the party to get young people out there and learning how to campaign,” Belt said.
House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang, who will become the highest-ranking elected Republican in the state next year, said one major problem is that party members “keep discrediting each other.”
“I’m sensing that there’s less and less room for diversity, and there’s more of a call for ideological oneness, and that’s not something that’s going to produce a healthy party,” she said. “If we can learn to accept that we don’t all agree, then I actually think that we can make a lot of progress, but I don’t know how to get us there.”
She also said there has been a problem with the Republican message in Hawaii.
“Republicans as a group in Hawaii have failed to recognize what the population wants from us,” she said. “I think we keep trying to sell the population and the residents in Hawaii on something that just isn’t resonating.” She added that “I think we all have different opinions on what would make us more relevant … and I think that’s where all of the division is coming from.”
McDermott has accused Fukumoto Chang of being too “cozy” with the majority Democrats in the House, and contends her political approach “undermines our role as watchdog and loyal opposition” to the Democrats. He also said she failed to recruit Republican candidates and raise money for them.
McDermott predicted Fukumoto Chang will be removed as minority leader before the Legislature reconvenes in January, but Fukumoto Chang said she plans to remain in that job.
Republican Party Chairman Fritz Rohlfing said Wednesday the election of Trump offers new opportunities for the party, noting that local Republicans worked phone banks from Hawaii to reach out to voters in swing states to help elect Trump.
“We’re happy to have been a part of that on the national level,” he said. “Locally there are a few setbacks, and we can learn from those.”
Rohlfing said he expects the party will attract new members and talent during the Trump administration.