Dems’ Blessings And Challenges

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - June 04, 2008

Hawaii’s Democrats spent the Memorial Day weekend in convention at the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel. They were in a festive mood, and they had good reason to be.

Count their blessings: First, they boast a Hawaii-born-and-reared presidential candidate. Barack Obama, child of two University of Hawaii students and a graduate of Punahou, will become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president of the United States in late August 2008.

Second, their numbers have swelled dramatically on the basis of Obama’s popularity and this year’s convention seats were filled with many, many new faces.

“I’m the only returning delegate from my precinct,” one convention regular told me.

Said another, “Every face in the row I’m sitting in is a new face.”

More than 35,000 attended Hawaii’s Democratic caucuses Feb. 19, and just under 1,000 delegates filled the Hilton’s Coral Ballroom. Heady numbers those, almost like the salad days of Hawaii’s democracy.

Third, Democrats could chortle over picking up two seats in the state Legislature more than a year before the 2008 elections take place. The pre-session apostasies of Republican state Rep. Karen Awana and Republican state Sen. Mike Gabbard added to the Democrats’ already bloated legislative majorities.

And their chances look good to add even more seats in the fall. Popular Big Island state Rep. Josh Green is going after the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Paul Whalen, and he is just one of many strong Democratic candidates eyeing the handful of Republican incumbents left in the Legislature.

Fourth, as in 2006 the Democrats have a terrific opponent to run against, i.e., George W. Bush. In his convention speech, U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie called Bush “the gift that keeps on giving” to Democratic candidates. “Poor John McCain,” said Abercrombie, “every night he goes to bed worrying about what stupid thing Bush said today. Then he wakes up in the morning worried about what stupid thing Bush has done while he was asleep.”

Bush’s approval ratings stand somewhere between 28 percent and 33 percent in the most recent polls. Numbers like those help Democrats from Kennebunkport to Ka’u - whatever office they seek.

Bush has had a particularly corrosive effect on attempts to rebuild Hawaii’s Republican Party. The 2002 election of the first Republican governor in 40 years gave Republicans hope that happier days lay ahead.

But Gov. Linda Lingle has been able to do little to improve local Republican fortunes. Her critics within the GOP fault her for not doing enough for Republican legislative candidates. Perhaps. But Bush’s blunders - from the invasion of Iraq to his response to Katrina to his failure to fashion an energy policy - has put a damper on all efforts at Republican party-building.

Fifth, the Democrats will go to their August convention as real players - a role they haven’t enjoyed for a long, long time. Not only did Hawaii’s gentle breezes and diverse society foster the national party’s nominee, not only did the party’s February caucuses give Obama the majority of their convention delegates, but in their Memorial Day weekend convention the Democrats joyously provided Obama with three more superdelegates: newly elected party chair Brian Schatz, his hand-picked vice-chair and former Judge James S. Burns.

Hawaii’s Democrats should, in good taste and sober reflection, mute their celebrations. Over the next five months they will be part of the most formidable electoral challenge any political party has faced since the launching of the Republic: the election of the United States’ first African-American president.

That will require little but grim hard work.

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