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Hawai‘i GOP: Name-Calling, Swearing and Welcoming Disgraced Democrat Rod Tam

The elephant in the room.


Elephant in the room

Photo: Thinkstock 


If you haven’t been following the Hawai‘i state Republicans in the past few months, you’ve been missing out on some juicy infighting and gaffes.


Bob McDermott, a Republican representative from ‘Ewa, dropped the F-bomb in his criticism of fellow GOP legislators whom he thought were being too nice to their Democratic colleagues. 


At the Republican state convention, some booed and shouted names at state Rep. Beth Fukumoto Chang while she defended her opposition to Donald Trump and her willingness to work with—you guessed it—her Democratic colleagues.


A Republican candidate for Tulsi Gabbard’s Congressional seat, Angela Ka‘aihue, has been campaigning with tone-deaf road signs proclaiming that she’s “healthy and cancer-free” (even as Rep. Mark Takai announced he would not be seeking re-election, in order to battle pancreatic cancer).


Finally, Republican Party chair Fritz Rohlfing proclaimed he was “thrilled” when infamous ethics violator Rod Tam turned sudden Republican in his bid for a state Senate seat. 


These shenanigans demonstrate why the GOP in Hawai‘i needs to re-examine its soul. Sure, Hawai‘i’s Republicans have long been the underdogs, battling against the local Democratic machine’s incumbency and majority. But even that David-and-Goliath imbalance is more pronounced than ever before. 


Consider the Congressional races this year: Brian Schatz is an incumbent Democrat. So is Tulsi Gabbard. Colleen Hanabusa, now running for her old Congressional seat, is nearly one. And where are the well-known, well-funded Republican candidates to challenge them? Nowhere in sight.


Fritz Rohlfing has had to reduce his party’s goals to clinging to a few seats in the state Legislature where there are just seven Republicans in the House and only one in the Senate, where veteran Sam Slom is being challenged by former Council member Stanley Chang.


One rare GOP bright spot is former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou’s candidacy for Honolulu mayor, but being a Republican is a deficit even in a technically non-partisan race.


How many times does a party have to get skunked to wonder if there needs to be a Plan B? But finding one has proven as daunting as finding money for rail. Surprisingly, the crisis facing the national Republican party may offer Hawai‘i’s GOP a way forward.


For decades, Hawai‘i’s Republican party has been out of sync with the national GOP. The forces and events that gave national Republicans passion and power over the past 50 years have passed Hawai‘i by. Reagan/Goldwater conservatism never took root here. Hawai‘i’s socially conservative religious groups haven’t been as influential as they have elsewhere. And the Tea Party here … what Tea Party? 


It’s the conventional wisdom (and the ardent belief of local Republican stalwarts) that Hawai‘i is different. People here are too tolerant, too polite and too laid-back to be like Mainland Republicans. 


But as Donald Trump’s polarizing antics throw the national Republican Party into disarray, they may actually offer Hawai‘i’s faction a teaching moment. Whether he wins or not, there will be a debate about the GOP soul. Are the assumptions of traditional conservatism still valid? Does the party have to pivot toward populism?


Hawai‘i’s Republicans should jump on the chance to participate in that debate as a way to re-examine its own political culture. Otherwise, the party risks a future as a quirky footnote.


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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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