The Hawaii Republican Party is in serious trouble.
Recently, Jonah Kaauwai, the party chair, was forced to resign. The party is $100,000 in debt, has no staff and no money to hire. Its fundraising capacity is in shambles.
These problems are getting all the attention, but that is not the reason it is in serious trouble. What Republicans really need to worry about is this: there is an excellent chance that fixing all those staffing and fiscal problems won’t make any difference.
The Hawaii party’s problems are not organizational. They are historical and structural. What’s more, Linda Lingle and Charles Djou, by far the best Hawaii Republican candidates in years, are flawed.
Hawaii Republicans are weaker than they have been in a long time, and they are moving in the wrong direction. Right now there are no Hawaii Republicans in Congress or the Senate. The governor is a Democrat, and the state Legislature has only a handful of Republicans, fewer than it had when Linda Lingle was elected governor in 2002.
In state legislative elections since 2002, Republicans have lost some previously strong Republican areas in East Oahu and the Windward Side and have not gained any previously Democratic seats. Even worse news for state Republicans, 2010 was a terrific success for the party everywhere in the country except in Hawaii where Charles Djou and Duke Aiona lost elections that many people, and not just Republicans, thought they would win.
Judging by state election results, Hawaii Republicans are now weaker across the state than they were 10 years ago. Hawaii is more Democratic, than ever.
Political parties get stronger in two ways. The first way is to transform the electorate, build the party from the grassroots. That is what Jonah Kaauwai wanted to do, but in the short run that is impossible. In fact dramatic and stable movements from one party to another rarely happen anywhere, and when they do, they take years.
Let’s take a quick look at examples of Republican success and see why they took place and how much they differ from Hawaii.
The South’s dramatic change from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold was triggered by antagonism to the Civil Rights Movement and by the willingness of national Republican candidates like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan to capitalize on this issue. Even then, the change from overall Democratic dominance to Republican dominance was slow. Republicans in Hawaii have never had such a compelling issue, civil rights or otherwise to work with.
Other Republican success stories have relied on grassroots movements to bring about dramatic changes. The driving force behind Ronald Reagan’s early political success were grassroots movements in southern California that began well before Reagan or Barry Goldwater were nationally prominent.
The heat and the heart of this southern California movement were white-collar workers who moved to the Los Angeles area in large numbers in the 1950s to work in the defense industry. They did not merely worry about the Communist menace and moral decline. They acted on these concerns. They founded local political organizations, worked with civic groups, and took active roles in local schools, all with the help of supportive local newspapers like the Orange County Register. They ran for local office, but they also did much more. Conservative political causes became a way of life in those communities.
Grassroots politics have also been crucial to the rise of the religious right, which started in small churches mainly scattered in the South and Midwest and only later developed a national presence.
The historian Diane Winston calls such movements “small bore politics,” everyday people doing everyday political work to bring about small-scale changes that later become the basis of larger change. It is about community organizing over small but important issues.
Hawaii Republican politics has little history of small-bore conservative political movements, and nothing close to it exists right now. The religious right here is not nearly as influential as it is elsewhere.
Small-bore conservatives here, including tea party sympathizers, are not nearly as visible as they are on the mainland. In 2010 Hawaii Republicans were able to get more candidates than usual to run. Kaauwai deserves credit for that. But that is a far cry from the kind of impassioned, day-to-day work that built the modern conservative movement.
What happened recently in Wisconsin is more typical of the way change occurs. In just one legislative session the Republican governor and the GOP-controlled Legislature totally transformed public employee collective bargaining laws from a conservative nightmare to a conservative dream.
But it only took a small change in election results to do this because Wisconsin is a politically competitive state. The governorship regularly changes hands from party to party, so it only took a few Republican gains in the 2010 state legislative elections to give that party control. Transformative policies, yes, but transformation of the Wisconsin electorate? Not really.
But in Hawaii, change a few seats in the state Legislature, and Republicans would still not be anywhere close to a majority, so for now that is out of the question too.
Fortunately for Hawaii Republicans, it is possible to win elections without transforming the party. Short term, just get our people elected. Typically, a candidate, not the party apparatus, runs his or her own campaigns. Linda Lingle did it this way, and she will do it this way again if she runs for the U.S. Senate. So will Charles Djou who has already declared for the First Congressional seat.
Lingle and Djou are formidable candidates. They are certainly better than the Republicans who usually run for Senate or the House in Hawaii. But both Lingle and Djou have serious electability problems.
One of their problems of course is the height of the bar. In a competitive state, roughly 30 percent of the voters are sure Democrats and about the same number are sure Republicans. Campaigns in these states are over the roughly 20 percent in the middle.
A rough estimate in Hawaii would be 50 percent Democrats and 30 percent Republicans. Consequently, the Republicans need to get a really large chunk of the less-committed voters. That’s where Djou and Lingle start. The Democrats’ campaigns only need to get a C. Both Lingle and Djou need an A.
Neither of them may be A-level candidates, however. In different ways each lacks an essential skill, the ability to get voters to identify emotionally with them.
Campaigns are about emotions, not issues. As the psychologist Drew Westen put it in his book, “The Political Brain,” “the road to elections is paved with emotional intentions.”
Most people make choices on the basis of how they feel about a candidate and how much they identify with and trust the candidate. Issues are secondary. Successful candidates know how to develop stories about themselves and their values that resonate with individual voters at a very personal level.
Ronald Reagan was successful not so much because of his ideology but because he could touch people with his stories, show how what he believed touched them personally. In fact, as Westen points out, Republicans have always been much better at this than Democrats.
In this regard Lingle and Djou each lack something. Lingle, of course, has won a couple of big elections (she also lost one against Ben Cayetano in a election that many people thought she would win).
But the 2012 Senate race really puts her in the major leagues. What is her master narrative, the essence of the stories that Lingle will tell about herself? How will she connect with the voters at an emotional level? Nothing jumps out.
“It’s time for a change” could be part of the story, but that is probably not enough. Overall, her image in this emotional sense is more opaque than compelling.
Djou has an entirely different problem, and it is a little bit puzzling. In his 2012 race against Hanabusa Djou had a very clear story, which he told repeatedly. It was a conservative Republican economics story that emerged from a set of principles that were clear and easy to understand. Like him or dislike him, you knew where he stood.
Djou was a good campaigner. He was personable, polite, and stuck to his message. He was a hard person not to like. The problem was that his story about himself did not work, precisely because it was so rational and issue oriented. Djou’s story lacked emotion. It lacked the tea party’s passion, the religious right’s fervor, and Barack Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s ability to connect at an emotional level with people very different from themselves.
Overall, then, Hawaii Republicans approach 2012 with a couple of good if flawed candidates and a party that right now is going nowhere. Can Lingle and Djou pull it off under these circumstances? Sure. After all, considering the economy and President Obama’s approval rating, 2012 could really be a big Republican year.
But so was 2010.
About the author: Neal Milner is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii where he taught for close to 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV. Neal is also an actor, playwright, and story teller.