by Andrew Walden
With Hawaii’s moderate Republican Governor Linda Lingle by all accounts preparing to launch her 2012 bid for the US Senate, Republicans face a unique opportunity—and challenge.
For years the Hawaii Republican organization has been controlled by Lingle loyalists—even Lingle herself. But in 2009 Republican delegates elected Jonah Kaauwai GOP Chair. Lingle’s 2012 campaign will be run through her campaign committee.
The immediate result of Kaauwai’s election was that Republicans in 2010 gained legislative seats for the first time since 2004. Church-based voter registration efforts brought 15,000 new votes into House Republican races. And Republicans—taking a page from Jack Burns’ 1950-54 “cell gang”--are already training dozens of Legislative candidates for 2012 races.
Perhaps sensing this change, donors whose primary goal is furthering Lingle’s political aspirations have already begun shifting their contributions away from the Hawaii GOP organization. The GOP’s February 18th Lincoln Day dinner drew in substantially less than in recent years. Underlining the shift, in her Lincoln Day speech, Governor Lingle took the opportunity to take a swipe at the hugely popular Kaauwai. This stance positions Lingle to run as the moderate Republican she is, and also serves notice to conservatives that if they want to lead the Party they have to pay for it. The challenge facing the GOP leadership is to communicate this reality to Hawaii conservatives, some of whom have been sitting on their contribution money for years.
As a general rule, Party organizations in the 50 states are usually not beholden to a single candidate or officeholder. A certain amount of creative friction is not only expected but desirable between the executive, legislative and mayoral officeholders of a single party—and the Party organization.
But in the recent history of Hawaii, the one party State has been reflected by one man (or woman) rule inside both Democratic and Republican organizations. In a March 17 interview with Malia Zimmermann of Hawaii Reporter, former US Rep Ed Case described Sen. Inouye’s loss of control over the Democratic Party:
EC—…There was a time when Senator Inouye—or more accurately the people around Senator Inouye—on his behalf, or at least statedly on his behalf, would be able to exert a much greater level of what happened inside of the Democratic Party. That arose because Senator Inouye was funding the Democratic Party and therefore had the power of the purse.…
Because he would facilitate contributions to the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party really became overly dependent on his funding for its survival.
MZ—Similar thing with Linda Lingle, I think.
EC—Probably so, sure. So the Democratic Party kind of fell out of touch with its grassroots support and I think Dante Carpenter and many of the members of the Democratic Party over the last couple of years have done a very good job of trying to broaden that base of financial support.
As Inouye’s grip on Hawaii politics continues to evaporate, the organizational and political changes in both parties—and the polarization between progressive and conservative—points towards a genuine two-party system for Hawaii. This process began with the excesses of the “progressive” Democrat Governor Cayetano who split the Democratic coalition and helped Governor Lingle to success in 2002. Governor Abercrombie is picking up where Cayetano left off, creating opportunities for the GOP on all levels in 2012.
But as Republicans prepare for their State Convention May 14-15 on Kauai, the challenge for Hawaii conservatives is to take the financial responsibilities that come with leadership.