Down in the Weeds: Alaska and Hawaii

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

At the national level, there is not much here.  No one expects Trump to win Hawaii and no one expects the Democrat to win Alaska.  The difference is a one electoral vote advantage to the Democrats, but the two are important for down ballot races and for different reasons- one oil and the other history.

Turnover in the Governor’s office in Alaska is an epidemic.  In the state, there is one topic that dominates political discussion- the state’s oil Permanent Fund Dividend program (PFD).  With chronic state budget shortfalls, the PFD is a likely target.  What to do has created a schism within the party.  On one side you have a faction of traditional Republican legislators who favor budget cuts, but not as deep as the ones proposed most recently.  They are willing to reduce the annual dividend to make up for shortfalls.  On the other side, you have PFD die-hards from pockets of Anchorage, the Mat-Su region and parts of the Kenai peninsula.  They include current GOP Governor Dunleavy.

Dunleavy succeeded Bill Walker, an independent who was one of the least popular governors at the time. Realizing he could not win reelection, he suspended his campaign.  He was the first governor to cut the PFD while simultaneously expanding Medicaid at a time when oil revenues were seriously hurt by declining prices.  He attempted to tax income, liquor and fuel, but those proposals went nowhere.  By 2017, Alaska had one of the lowest credit ratings in the country surpassed by only Illinois and New Jersey.  How the PFD war plays out will determine if Dunleavy can be reelected.

Needless to say, Democrats see this internecine warfare in the GOP over the PFD as an opportunity come 2020.  They are motivated by Dunleavy’s attacks on the unions in the state and his cuts to one of their pet projects, the University of Alaska.  This mindset drifts down the ballot to the Senate race of Dan Sullivan who the Democrats are trying to portray as out of touch with Alaskans.  They believe they have their candidate in Al Gross.  Gross is portraying himself as a maverick willing to stand up to the Democrat leadership in Washington and claiming that Sullivan, unlike Murkowski, is too close to Trump.  Further, Gross has been able to out-raise Sullivan in contributions.  This has caused some consternation among the GOP in what should be a sleepy Senate race.

Murkowski’s performance in DC, particularly her stances against anything Trump, have infuriated the state GOP.  Her vote against Kavanaugh seems to have been the breaking point for many conservatives in Alaska and she will face a primary challenger come 2022, if she runs.  Sullivan is viewed by the state GOP as the anti-Mukowski.

Even further down the ballot, virtually every Republican legislator is expected to have some primary challenger.  The lines over an austerity state budget as proposed by Dunleavy coupled with preservation of the PFD and those opposed are drawn in the Alaskan snow.  The 2019 legislative session revealed the fault lines as debate over things other than the PFD dominated, not so much Republican vs. Democrat, but Republican vs. Republican.

On the national stage, the Alaska GOP did appear unified when they canceled their primary and threw their support in for Trump.  As weird as things appear in Alaska, there was some other good news.  Republican Jim Matherly won the mayor’s race in Fairbanks, a Democrat stronghold.  The key was getting Republican voters to the polls through a concerted grassroots level organizational plan.  Riding his coat tails, the Fairbanks city council is a little more red these days.

In Hawaii, the situation is somewhat different and Democrat control of the state is predicated upon history, primarily the labor movement.  That movement began with a series of strikes in the 1930s and 1940s to protest the low wages on sugar plantations.  Although failing to get their demands met, they engendered much sympathy along the way.  After World War II, many Hawaiians sought to end the oligarchical elite.  They forged a union between other groups on the island with organized labor to strengthen the Democrat Party.  In the 1950s, although not all the elites were white, the territorial senate was exclusively white in a state where Asians held the majority.

The elections of 1954 created a dramatic shift from the largely white GOP to the largely Asian Democrats.  The events of these decades resonates today.  Hawaii ranks second in terms of unionization of workers at about 20% of all workers.  Regardless of ideology, Hawaiian politicians now run regularly under the banner of the Democrats because they know it increases their chances of election.  Many former Republicans have, in fact, officially switched their party affiliation as a result.

However, while it would appear to be a Democrat monolith, there is a split in their party between moderates and the more progressive of the lot.  The Hawaiian Democrats of the 1950s were more centrist, but in recent years the party has moved far to the Left.  This split reared its head after the death of longtime senator Daniel Inouye.  Prior to his death, he expressed his wish that Colleen Hanabusa would succeed him.  However, the governor at the time appointed Brian Schatz, a politician in no way connected to the 1954 events (unlike Hanabusa) and came from the more progressive wing of the party.  What resulted was a contentious primary with Schatz emerging the winner by under 1,800 votes.

Still, Hawaii is a very blue state.  Part of that is the influence of organized labor.  Another part is attributable to the failure of the GOP to appeal to the non-white (majority) population.  Unfortunately, Republicans have not been able to take advantage of Hawaii’s notoriously low voter turnout rates in the country.  In 2016, only 35% of registered voters turned out.  It is unfortunate because it is apparent there is voter apathy in Hawaii.  Further, the GOP needs to take advantage of  the restlessness of the Hawaiian electorate in a state that suffers some of the highest taxation in the country, crushing public employee pension debt, an incompetent bureaucracy, and the highest per-capita homeless rate in the country.

The reason turnout is low is because the GOP has failed to offer any viable options.  In essence, local Republicans have hit rock bottom.  Except for a brief interval between 2002 and 2010, the Governor has been a Democrat.  Even then, Republican Governor Linda Lingle often capitulated to Democrats.  Today, the GOP has no members in the state senate and only 5 in the house (of 51 members).

In the recent elections for a state party chief, the state GOP elected Shirlene DelaCruz Santiago Ostrov, a Filipina-American.  Mark Blackburn became the new finance chief and quickly paid off the party’s debt.  For her part, Ostrov is attempting to rebuild the party from the bottom up and it starts with a GOP “Contract With Hawaii” modeled on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.”  As a result, she has managed to recruit candidates in some districts where Republicans dared to tread.

Still, you have people like Beth Fukumoto, once the youngest state legislators to be the minority floor leader in the Hawaii house, that plague the party.  She was a frequent and vocal critic of Trump referring to him as “racist and sexist.”  The reason there are five GOP members of the state house is because they told Fukumoto to take a hike.  She did and is now a Democrat.  While some have portrayed this as fealty to party purity, the open and frequent criticism of President Trump was unwarranted, especially since she made those remarks as a Republican at a well-publicized event- the Women’s March in 2017.  Perhaps if she worried more about Hawaii, its tax burden, its inept bureaucracy, its crushing debt, and its homeless problem, she would have less time to trash the President.  Good riddance.

Is the Hawaii GOP on the verge of a resurgence in the state?  Probably not just as the GOP in Alaska is not going to implode over the PFD.  Each situation is unique to each state and, quite frankly, interests and concerns very few people in the Lower 48.  Hawaii will give their 4 electoral votes to Biden/Warren/Sanders/Buttigieg/Bloomberg/Steyer/Castro/Klobuchar, etc. and Alaska will give their three to Trump.

Next: New Mexico