September, 2006 Vol. 31 No. 3
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Hawaiʻi Office of Elections

Published September 2006

A Political Shift

Fall elections in Hawaiʻi predicted to bring change

by John Burnett
legs of Hawaii voter in voting booth

Despite Hawaiʻi’s historically low voter turnout and the lack of a presidential race, the 2006 elections will likely signal a fundamental shift in the state’s electorate, University of Hawaiʻi experts predict. Changing demographics and philosophies will be reflected in those elected.

"Soon the majority of people living in Hawaiʻi will not be born in the islands," observes Ira Rohter, UH Mānoa political scientist and president of Hawaiʻi Clean Elections. He sees a new generation of leadership emerging. "Our culture is being rapidly shaped by mass media and becoming less ʻlocal’ in content and values. The Democratic Party stood for something a while ago. Now people are searching for a new ideology to define how to deal with 21st century issues. There is little evidence it has arrived."

UH West Oʻahu Professor of History Dan Boylan traces shifts in voting philosophies to two institutions with strong roots in Hawaiʻi—labor unions and churches. "One of the primary reasons the Democrats do so poorly nationally is that the base organization of the Republican party, churches, is stronger than the unions are, and significantly stronger in getting out its vote," he notes. "I think that, to some extent, is changing Hawaiʻi as well."

In a hotly contested Sept. 23, 2006 primary race, U.S. Rep. Ed Case, 53, is counting on the demographic changes in his challenge to 81-year-old incumbent Sen. Dan Akaka. Age, questions of leadership and a Time magazine article describing Hawaiʻi’s junior senator as a "master of the minor resolution and the bill that dies in committee" make Akaka vulnerable, says Rick Castberg, UH Hilo professor of political science.

"A debate is likely to hurt Akaka, but Case can’t be overly aggressive, as there is a lot of aloha for Sen. Akaka," he says. A typical primary turnout of the Democratic base favors Akaka, but in Hawaiʻi’s open primary, Case could benefit from a high turnout by drawing independent and Republican crossover votes, he adds.

The free-for-all for Case’s vacated second Congressional seat has drawn a slew of prominent names and up-and-coming hopefuls on the Democratic side. GOP candidates include State Sen. Bob Hogue, a veteran sportscaster, and former State Rep. Quentin Kawananakoa, a descendent of Prince David and Princess Abigail Kawananakoa.

"If Quentin Kawananakoa gets the Republican nomination, he’ll have an enormous amount of money to spend. Bob has terrific name recognition," Boylan says. "So the Republicans are going to put up a race, but I don’t think this year they have much of a chance, frankly, because of the president’s numbers and the president’s reputation."

Apparent Democratic front-runners are former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, Sen. Colleen Hanabusa and former Sen. Matt Matsunaga, Castberg says. "Sen. Clayton Hee has name recognition, but is controversial. Hirono has to shake the ʻloser’ label. Hanabusa has to get out the Leeward vote."

The ongoing war in Iraq and Afghanistan could affect the makeup of the next Congress, but UH’s political pundits doubt it will be a major issue in Hawaiʻi. The Republican base is the only group that has still has majority support for the war, but unpopularity of the war will only be a factor if the Democrats can do something with it, says Todd L. Belt, UH Hilo political scientist. "To date, they have not. Simply trying to pass a resolution for a timetable for withdrawal is not enough. The Democratic leadership needs to put together a credible alternative vision for the U.S. role in Afghanistan and the Middle East. They also need a credible alternative vision for how to fight the War on Terror and simultaneously protect civil liberties."

All agree that Gov. Linda Lingle is safe.

"Both Linda and Ed are convinced that they recognize the new trend in Hawaiʻi—that it’s more moderate, that it’s more haole, that the demographics have changed remarkably and this is changing Hawaiʻi," Boylan says. "If Ed wins this election—and I think there’s a very good chance that he will—then we’ll have had a fundamental shift in the way that Hawaiʻi politics operates."

John Burnett (AA ’81 Leeward, BA ’94 Hilo, MEd ’00 Mānoa) is a Big Island writer and part-time UH Hilo employee

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