When Republican state Rep. Andria Tupola lost to Gov. David Ige by nearly 29 percentage points in last week’s general election, it was the most dramatic drubbing in a gubernatorial race in state history.
It was also a likely sign that Hawaii voters are continuing to migrate to the Democratic Party.
The election results were particularly startling because Ige appeared so politically vulnerable at the start of this year’s campaign that many thought he would be ousted. The incumbent was forced to spend more than $2.47 million fending off a strong primary challenge from Democratic U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.
Tupola, meanwhile, is a young, charismatic Republican who conveys confidence. She served two terms in the state House including a stint as House minority leader, and “the television cameras love her,” as one political analyst put it.
But the final vote count from the general election tells a different story. Ige and his running mate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Josh Green, received 244,815 votes, while Tupola and running mate Marissa Kerns received just 131,605.
Even in a traditionally Democratic-controlled state, the governor’s race historically has been much closer than that, with just a few percentage points separating candidates from the two major parties.
The only race with a spread even close to this year’s blowout was in 2006, when Republican Gov. Linda Lingle clobbered Democrat Randy Iwase in her re-election bid. Lingle raised $6.7 million for that campaign and vastly outspent the lesser-known Iwase, defeating him by slightly more than 27 percentage points.
While some poll data show voters are not thrilled with the state of affairs under the leadership of Hawaii’s Democrats, Republicans have been unable to capitalize on that discontent in recent years, political observers said.
“We have been trending much more Democratic in the state,” said Todd Belt, political science professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. “Since the early 2000s the state has been trending more and more Democratic, and you can see that with the numbers (of Republicans) in the state House, as well, on the decline.”
Tough road for GOP
The Republicans hold just five seats in the 51-member state House and had no members in the 25-member state Senate for the past two years. That changed Tuesday when Republican Kurt Fevella defeated state Rep. Matt LoPresti in the Senate race for the district that includes Ewa Beach and Ewa Villages.
Hawaii Republican Party Chairwoman Shirlene Ostrov agreed “the Democrat Party is becoming more entrenched, and the perceived brand of the Republican Party nationally kind of affects how people look at the Republican Party here in Hawaii.”
“Definitely the national political environment affects the way the people look at the political lens here in Hawaii, even though it’s very, very different,” she said. “When people nationally say that the Republican Party is aligned with a white superiority kind of agenda, it tends to filter down to a state where we don’t have that liability and we don’t even have an ethnic majority.”
The drumbeat in the local media that the Hawaii Republican Party is dying “is also not helpful,” she said. “It’s not helpful to donors, and it’s also not helpful necessarily to people who want to get involved.
“We know it’s a tough road, and we never said it’s going to be an easy ride, but it is a little frustrating that people are not connecting their votes with the failed policies that are really affecting everyday families,” she said.
“From rail to education to housing, those are failed Democrat policies, and we really should have a competition of ideas, and that’s why we’re doing what we are doing, to at least find a competition of ideas and a competition of policies that in the end hopefully would best serve the people of Hawaii.”
Ostrov said she is pleased Hawaii Republicans “reversed our trend line and had a net gain of seats” with the election of Fevella. “We have a state senator now, and that’s a big deal, and people need to understand … but the media will continue to say it’s the death of the party,” she said.
Boost for Democrats
Ige said he sees the election results as proof that “when we work together, we can do great things.” The election was also a rejection of the contentious politics on the mainland, he said.
“At the federal level and the national level you had certainly, from my perspective, a disconnect of the president and the Republican Party really walking away from what I felt fundamentally are core Hawaii values about embracing immigration and recognizing that many of our citizens have immigrant roots and … that we celebrate diversity. And we learned a long time ago that we gotta work together to get things done,” Ige said.
“Certainly with the federal picture and the focus on dividing the people, I really felt that it was important that we make a statement for Hawaii in that context,” he said.
Belt said Ige benefited in the general election from years of increasing national political polarization and “hyper-partisanship,” which has been reflected in local voting and provided a boost to Democrats.
Another problem for the Republicans was that Tupola’s campaign for governor was eclipsed by the dramatic Democratic primary race between Ige and Hanabusa, Belt said. After Ige won the primary election, voter excitement waned because people did not expect the general election to be close, he said.
Close contests encourage higher turnout by political independents, which might have helped Tupola, but that didn’t happen this year, Belt said.
Lingle lost her first bid for governor in 1998 by slightly more than 1 percent of the vote, and Belt recalled that after that election, Lingle worked to consolidate and energize the political base that supported her.
She took control of the state Republican Party and continued to build her base so she was positioned to win when many voters became disillusioned with the Democrats leading up to the 2002 election, he said.
Tupola gave a fiery concession speech Tuesday in which she promised to stay engaged, Belt said, and the Lingle “playbook” is there for her to use if she chooses.
“It’s a tough road for Republicans because they do have to get the endorsements of our powerful sectors in this state,” such as the major public worker unions and the construction industry, Belt said. “In order to get those, first you have to show that you are viable, because nobody wants to support the loser.”