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Lonely times for Hawaii's Republicans

The state has voted consistently Democratic since statehood, and it's only gotten worse for the GOP since Barack Obama was elected president. But a few Republicans are putting up a fight.

January 09, 2010|By Alana Semuels
  • Despite the tough odds, the young leader of Hawaii's GOP says that a "Republican hurricane is coming."
Despite the tough odds, the young leader of Hawaii's GOP says that… (Alana Semuels / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Honolulu — Julia Allen and her husband Mike Palcic -- or "Big Cheese," as he's called on his business card -- have run for office on Oahu on the Republican ticket more than 10 times.

Forget the fact that neither has ever won. They're determined to keep running for office in one of the most left-leaning states in the union.

"I only lose if I quit," said Allen, who received one-fifth of the vote in her 2008 race for state representative of the 20th District of Oahu. She spent months banging on doors, asking neighbors for votes, but people weren't much interested -- her opponent was the speaker of the Hawaii House of Representatives.

These are wearisome days to be a Republican in Hawaii. The state has voted consistently Democratic since statehood, but now that Hawaii is home state to the country's president, the Republican Party's meager presence seems to be drizzling down to nothing.

Most of the population in Hawaii seems to have a giant crush on Obama. Bobbleheads of the shirtless president wearing a lei are flying off shelves, and discussions about naming parks after him are already underway.

In the 2008 election, about 72% of votes in Hawaii went to Obama, the biggest majority in any state. But people aren't just voting Democratic in national elections. Of the 76 members of the state Legislature, 68 are Democrats, up from 64 in 2006. Many Democrats ran unopposed in the last election because Republicans couldn't persuade anyone to run against them, Allen said.

"Who wants to go out there and lose?" said Allen, a slight redhead with glasses who could be mistaken for a college professor. She has run for the same House seat every year since 2004.

Saying you're a Republican in Hawaii "is like saying you're a leper," said Palcic, a heavyset man who owns an Apple computer repair shop in Honolulu. He first ran for state office in Hawaii in 1982 and has been in half a dozen races since then.

Perhaps Allen and Palcic can keep running because the two, who have lived in Hawaii for 31 years, have a laid-back attitude about defeat. After Allen's last loss, Palcic cooked up some garlic fries and held a barbecue for friends. She was out the next day waving a sign, smiling and thanking people for voting for her, although only 1,915 did.

Still, Republicans are trying to take advantage of Hawaii's current economic woes to rid their party of its stigma. Under the Democratic Legislature, the state's unemployment rate has more than doubled in two years to 7%, and the statewide school district has canceled classes on 17 Fridays during the academic year because it can't pay its teachers.

"Voters need to realize the lopsided system doesn't work," said Cynthia Thielen, a Republican state House member who ran against incumbent Daniel K. Akaka for Hawaii's U.S. Senate seat in 2006.

In March, Allen, Palcic and a few other aggravated Republicans created the Hawaii Republican Assembly, which aims to "reverse the political fortunes of candidates who support republican principals." Its leader, Paul Smith, who has also run for the Hawaii Legislature and lost, said at the time that "Hawaii seems more like a dictatorship than a republic" because of the long reign of the Democrats.

A month later, they joined the tens of thousands of people nationwide holding "tea parties." About 400 people showed up to their tax-protest march on the state Capitol.

But for the most part, Hawaiians haven't heeded their calls to action. When Allen knocks on doors, some people slam them in her face. Others listen politely but seem to think that party affiliation, like genetics, runs in the family.

"People say, 'I'm a Democrat because my parents were,' " said David Chang, who is running as a Republican for a state House seat in Hawaii.

The state's Republican Party is upping the ante too. It persuaded Karl Rove to speak at the party's annual dinner next month, and elected a 36-year-old, Jonah Kaauwai, as its head. In his acceptance speech, Kaauwai vowed that a "Republican hurricane is coming."

At the GOP headquarters in Honolulu, the change feels a little bit more like a slow breeze. A handful of older women sit below a poster of Lincoln, stuffing envelopes.

"You don't even hear the word 'Republican' in Hawaii," said Helene Webster, a volunteer receptionist in the office. Kaauwai, a bald, energetic man with hipster glasses, is convinced that he can change that. He quit his job to take over the unpaid position in May and is now going around talking to people about local issues, trying to convince them that their values don't match up with those of the Democratic Party.

"A whole bunch of people are walking around with lightbulbs on their heads," he said. "Our job is to turn on the light."

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