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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 14, 2002

State GOP needs to look beyond governor's race

By Bob Dye
Kailua-based writer and historian

With just 107 days until the final moment for filing nomination papers on July 23, it appears that incumbent Congress members Neil Abercrombie and Patsy Mink will go unchallenged in the Democratic primary. In the general election only Mink will have a Republican opponent, it seems.

Linda Lingle's candidacy cannot be the only GOP focus.

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Sure it's tough to unseat an incumbent member of Congress. It's never been done in this state. And that's probably one of the reasons no Republican other than state Rep. Bob McDermott is running for a Washington job.

But the biggest reason is that the state GOP is not yet up to strength to be a full-fledged party. Although voters say they are ready to huli the system, the GOP offers change only by increments — the governorship, then a majority in the state House, a U.S. House seat someday and more state senators, too, sometime in the future.

This cautious, step-by-step approach has yielded, so far, only enough House seats to give the GOP the power to recall and block bills in the lower chamber. That's an important gain. But it doesn't give Republicans enough power to accomplish major changes in the state. Nor does it give them a voice in Washington.

With two openings in the U.S. Senate possibly occurring sometime during this decade, it is shortsighted for the GOP to forgo congressional races. Both of our sitting senators — Democrats Dan Inouye and Daniel Akaka — moved up from seats in the House. So, too, did the late Sen. Spark Matsunaga. It is the usual way. So unless there is a Republican serving in the Hawai'i congressional delegation at the time of a vacancy, chances are that the office will go again to a Democrat.

Abercrombie makes no secret of his desire to be a U.S. senator. Mink sought that office before. You'd think that eliminating the two veteran politicians from the competition would be a primary goal of the Republicans.

But no, they are particularly focused on the Linda Lingle candidacy for governor and taking a majority of House seats in the general election. "These are goals adopted by the state committee," explains GOP executive Micah Kane. That doesn't mean the party won't support an electable candidate for other offices if one surfaces, he says.

His party must pay Bob McDermott more attention.

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"That's not the way to go," responds former Mayor Frank Fasi. "Even the best laid plans go awry. You can't run a successful political party by doing things piecemeal."

He thinks the GOP should rethink its approach to power-taking. "Poll the candidates, they're the folks in the front lines, to see what approach to take," he suggests.

Fasi says for the party to not help him fight for the Honolulu mayor's seat would be dumb beyond belief. He points out that he's the only Republican running in the nonpartisan race. "If a Democrat is elected mayor in September," he warns, "forget a Republican governor in November."

His point is a simple one: Whoever controls the enormous political power of Honolulu Hale controls the gubernatorial election. If Fasi is the mayor, John Carroll or Lingle will benefit. If a Democrat is the mayor, D.G. "Andy" Anderson, Ed Case or Jeremy Harris will benefit.

The GOP's lonely candidate for national office, McDermott, complains that the GOP kept shooting him in the foot: "It became clear that the party didn't want me as a candidate. I can live with that. So now I'm on my own. I'm sign-waving and I've raised about $30,000 in small donations. I feel really good."

The rift between McDermott and Kane over access to a donors' list is healed. "I like Micah," McDermott says. "We'll help Bob all we can without jeopardizing our goals," Kane says.

Another self-imposed GOP constraint to a spirited primary is its decision to support only incumbents. That means political newcomer Cindy Evans, for example, will get no kokua from the party in her primary bid to oust Rep. Jim Rath of North Kona. If she does prevail in the primary, of course, the party will support her in the general to retain that House seat in the 6th District. With voters displaying strong anti-incumbent feelings, the GOP decision may backfire on them this year.

The state Democrats have no such exclusionary policy: "Incumbency is not an entitlement: It is a privilege to serve the community and has to be earned," says Democratic head Lorraine Akiba. "Our goal is to present voters with the best choices." All Democratic candidates, whether they are running for an open seat or against an incumbent, have equal access to resources and training, she says.

Presumably, McDermott could switch parties, challenge Mink in the Democratic primary and get help from them to do it. "We encourage competition," promises Akiba.

Primary contests build party strength for the all-important general election.

Remember the three-way Democratic primary slugfests between George Ariyoshi, Tom Gill and Fasi, and then the coming together of the three factions of Democrats to win in the general? Competition made the state Democratic Party strong and enduring.

That Republicans have chosen to stay on an unproven path is perplexing to political pragmatists. If the GOP fails to have contests at many levels, nominal Republicans, former Democrats, Independents and first-time voters may very well choose to help decide hotly contested races in the Democratic primary.

If they do, there's a good chance they will stick with the candidates they invested a vote in, to the chagrin of the GOP.

For example, in the 2002 Democratic primary, Anderson, a former Mr. Republican, has emerged as a strong contender. If Lingle has no spirited GOP primary battle against Carroll, Anderson's GOP friends may decide to cross over and vote for him in the Democratic primary. If they do, they may stay with him.

Other voters may like Case's moderate fiscal policies, or want the popular Harris' vision projects at the state level.

The path the Republicans are on appears to benefit only one candidate, Lingle for governor. But does it really? It was the path the GOP traveled in 1998, and they lost their best chance in years to take Washington Place. A way to keep Lingle from losing again is for the party to give all of its candidates, not only fair and free access to all resources and services, but the same intensity of support it gives to Lingle. Get rid of the restraints in the primary, have a donnybrook and back everybody who is still standing in the general. The folks want big-time changes now, not steps to victory in our time.