Where ‘Righteousness’ Gets You

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - October 05, 2011
| Del.icio.us

Last week, members of the moderate wing of Hawaii’s Republican Party dumped Jonah Kaauwai as their chairman. “Pressured him to resign” may be a more polite way of putting it, but a “dump” by another name is still a “dump.”

Ask any jilted lover. And Kaauwai loved the Republican Party. He demonstrated his ardor throughout his two-year tenure as chairman. In 2010 he succeeded in fielding candidates to run in every one of the state’s legislative districts, an accomplishment unclaimed by many who’ve chaired the Islands’ Grand Old Party.

But his efforts went unrewarded. Republicans picked up but a single seat in the 51-member House of Representatives while losing one in the 25 memberstate Senate, leaving them with a caucus of eight in the House and one, “Lonely Sam” Slom, in the Senate.

The results proved particularly discouraging for local Republicans because 2010 seemed oh-so-much like a Republican year. In April former state representative and city councilman Charles Djou beat two well-known Democrats to fill the unexpired 1st District term of Neil Abercrombie, and throughout the general election season polls indicated that Republicans across the country would win in 2010.

Which, of course, they did, seizing control of one house of Congress and governorships and legislative majorities in key states north, south, east and west.

But not in Hawaii. Despite the battering Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann had given each other in the Democratic primary, Republican gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona lost to Abercrombie by a whopping 17 percentage points. In a much closer contest, Djou went down to state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa.

Failing to win legislative seats bodes ill for a Republican chair, but it’s not uncommon. Failing to win legislative seats and losing the big prizes, the governorship Republican Linda Lingle had held for two terms and the first congressional seat the GOP had held, however briefly, in two decades, spells death for any party chair.

Yet Kaauwai enjoyed a reprieve, winning re-election to his post at the state Republican convention this past May. He held on to his job because Kaauwai is an unapologetic evangelical Christian, and evangelical Christians have become the bedrock of the Republican Party in Hawaii and across the continent.

That’s why a publically prayerful, although largely unknown Texas Gov. Rick Perry leaped to the top of the Republican presidential field the hour he announced his candidacy. As union members provide the Democratic Party’s base, evangelical Christians do the same for the Republican Party. And evangelical Christians alone can carry a general election for the Republicans in Mississippi or South Carolina, but not in Hawaii.

Unfortunately for Hawaii Republicans, in 2010 Kaauwai identified GOP candidates too closely with evangelical Christianity. In his infamous letter to the Hawaii Christian Coalition, Kaauwai proclaimed Democrats Mufi Hannemann, a Mormon, and Neil Abercrombie, a one-time Episcopalian, “unrighteous.” The righteous candidate in chairman Kaauwai’s eyes? Roman Catholic Lt. Gov. Aiona, of course, because he had the support of “the church ... operating in the power and authority and the name of Jesus!”

Righteousness speech can win a legislative seat or two and seed some grassroots on a limited political backyard, but it can’t win the big ones in a state as culturally diverse as Hawaii. When Lingle, who is Jewish, chaired the local Republicans from 1998 to 2002, she didn’t hesitate to recruit preacher candidates to help swell the GOP’s legislative ranks. As a candidate for governor, however, she kept her distance from the evangelical right.

As a candidate for the United States Senate in 2012, Lingle and all who would wish her well Republican, Democrat and Independent don’t want the Republican chair labeling any candidate as “righteous” or “unrighteous.” Neither, it’s fair to bet, does 1st District congressional candidate and former congressman Djou.

Maybe a Republican candidate in the 2nd Congressional District will speak of righteousness. Jonah Kaauwai is considering running for the vacant seat.

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