By Kevin Dayton
Republican state Rep. Andria Tupola's campaign for governor is playing out amid the noise and bitterness of the national midterm elections, which are all about the persona and policies of Republican President Donald Trump. Democratic Gov. David Ige will be happy to point that out to anyone who missed it.
While Trump is seen as an asset to some mainland campaigns -- he has been stumping for his fellow Republicans in places such as Houston and Mesa, Ariz. -- political observers say it is a different story in Hawaii.
Fewer than 30 percent of Hawaii voters cast their ballots for Trump in 2016, and Trump does not appear to have won over many Hawaii voters since then.
At the same time, Tupola is in a difficult spot because the Hawaii Republican Party has shrunk to its "ideological core," and local Republicans won't support a candidate who does not support the president, said John Hart, chairman of the Department of Communications at Hawaii Pacific University.
"It's a difficult line for her to walk because on one hand her party clearly wants her to pledge allegiance to the president, and on the other hand there are going to be a lot of times when that line isn't going to do anything for her politically, which is why Ige ought to be doing what he's doing and connecting her with the president at every turn," Hart said.
Ige used that tactic during the first televised debate between Tupola and Ige on Oct. 15, and likely will try that approach again when they square off in a televised debate tonight. That debate on KITV begins at 9 p.m.
When Ige asked Tupola at the Oct. 15 debate whether she disagreed with any of Trump's policies, she replied, "We've had differences on various implementations of it," but didn't specifically describe those differences.
Ige was ready with this retort: "The difference between myself and Andria is that I disagree with Trump's policies on immigration, on affordable health care, on women's reproductive rights, because I believe that they are contrary to the values that we share in our communities."
"I've chosen to challenge the president in each of these areas because I believe that it is fundamentally important that we express our values that we share here in Hawaii," he said.
Tupola said what Ige is doing is a common strategy across the country this year. "No one's really running against their opponents; everyone's running against the president," she said. "In the communities that I'm going to, people might bring it up here and there, but the only people who bring it up consistently are reporters."
She said the feedback she has heard and read is that people "really just want to hear what the governor has done and what he plans to do. They would much rather focus on any results or programs or things we can look ahead to, but it seemed like it was all distraction tactics."
"I definitely am focused on talking about the issues that are most important to the people," she said. "We're trying to help more local families stay here for generations to come, and I think that at this point with a few weeks left, definitely my opponent is grappling with any tactic possible."
Former Gov. John Waihee, Ige's campaign chairman, said it's still unclear whether Tupola agrees with Trump on immigration or if she believes Trump did all he could to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria.
"Obviously, there are many people who are turned off by the president's personality, but that's not the real issue and that's not the real difference," Waihee said. "The difference is in his policy, and it's going to be interesting to see how she thinks those policies benefit Hawaii."
Even without the Trump factor, it would be extremely difficult for Republicans to crack the Democratic Party's hold on the office of the governor. Former Gov. Linda Lingle is the only Republican to hold that office since 1962.
Four years ago Ige defeated Republican James "Duke" Aiona by more than 12 percentage points, and Aiona was better known than Tupola because he served as Lingle's lieutenant governor for eight years. In 2010 Neil Abercrombie defeated Aiona by 17 percentage points.
Tupola, 37, is leader of the five-member House minority caucus and was first elected in 2012. This is her first run for statewide office.
If Tupola had hoped to focus on issues rather than national or party politics, her running mate, Marissa Kerns, hasn't been much help in that effort. Kerns, who won the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, last month complained publicly that Tupola is too liberal.
Kerns also said Tupola should apologize for her voting record in the state House, where Tupola often voted for bills proposed or backed by the dominant Democrats. Tupola and Kerns later said they are working together, but Hart said Kerns' comments present a political problem.
"If that's going to be your position as a Republican, that you're not going to work with Democrats, and Democrats are in the majority, what are your chances of ... getting elected in this environment?" Hart asked.
Tupola said that as she campaigns across the state, people are talking about community issues such as illegal vacation rentals, crime or the cost of living, and "it has nothing to do with the federal," she said.
"I'm just sticking to our message," Tupola said, "and sticking to listening to the people, because that's really what they want."
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