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Why Bush Might Win Hawaii

Ironically enough, the same-sex marriage issue gives Republicans hope in the Rainbow State.

8:00 PM, Oct 28, 2004 • By ANDY BLOM
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IT'S THE ISSUE that just won't stay in the closet. Republican politicians run skittishly from talking about same-sex marriage. The polls from Hawaii indicate they should be highlighting it.

Hawaii elects Republicans about as often as the Red Sox win the World Series. Only twice since statehood has a Republican president carried Hawaii (Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984). Yet the latest polls show Bush leading Kerry by a percentage point. National and state Democrats are in a tizzy. How can this be? The unknown factor may be Republican Mike Gabbard's campaign in Hawaii's second congressional district.

Gabbard is making same-sex marriage a centerpiece of his race to unseat one-term incumbent Democrat Ed Case. Hawaii was the one of first states tested on the same-sex marriage issue, after an activist state supreme court ruled in 1993 that denying marital status to gay couples was unconstitutional. Voters overturned the decision in 1998, passing a constitutional amendment to forbid gay marriage. Gabbard was a leader in the fight for the amendment and became a noted spokesmen against same-sex marriage. Two years ago he was elected to the Honolulu City Council, one of the most important and influential elected offices in the state. His wife was elected to the statewide school board and his daughter to the state legislature. This year, Gabbard decided to take on Rep. Case.

Gabbard is well liked and respected in Hawaii, and certainly not a single-issue candidate. He and his family have been dedicated public servants. But the importance of the same-sex constitutional battle, and its continuing effect, have motivated his campaign. In an overwhelmingly liberal, Democratic state, against the strong support of the media, labor, and the state Democratic party, the amendment to the Hawaii constitution banning same sex marriage passed with over 70 percent of the vote (the first of many such state measures passed with similar margins).

A combination of factors contributed to that 1998 success. Christian and conservative voters were dramatically energized. But even an energized conservative Christian electorate is a distinct minority in Hawaii. And Hawaiian culture has traditionally been tolerant of homosexuality. But the issue, and the campaign, touched on the family. And, with the family threatened, Hawaii's second-generation immigrants, union workers, lifelong Democrats voted against their party leaders.

This is the factor that Gabbard--even six years later--brings into the campaign. Running TV commercials that call on Hawaiians to vote to protect their children, Gabbard points out that Case led the statewide effort on behalf of same-sex marriage in 1998, and voted against the Marriage Protection Act and the Federal Marriage Amendment. He also cites Case's support for homosexuals serving openly in the military, and for teaching homosexuality in the schools.

Gabbard is not doing as well in the polls as President Bush, but his latest internal polls show he is gaining strength. In the 1998 campaign, support for the amendment in opinion polling had settled at 52 percent and trended downward just a couple of weeks before the election. The 70-plus percent final victory was an indication of the sub rosa strength of the same-sex marriage issue, which no doubt persists to this day.

Certainly, there are other issues aiding President Bush. Remembering 9/11 isn't a problem in a state that still has vivid memories of Pearl Harbor. With Korea on their other side, the Axis of Evil is probably a more vivid prospect to this Pacific outpost than to some other states. And, while Hawaiians may be liberal, they are fiercely patriotic. The military, sometimes loved and sometimes hated, is a significant part of the Hawaiian economy, and many Hawaiians serve in the National Guard.

In addition, after years of economic malaise, a recovery is underway in the first term of Republican Governor Linda Lingle. Hawaii currently has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation.

The polls showing an even presidential race have created heated activity in the Aloha state. The Democratic National Committee has rushed $200,000 of panic television money to bolster the Kerry campaign in the last week. MoveOn.org is sending cash. The Bush campaign is expected to start a TV effort. Mike Gabbard is still being outspent by Ed Case, but his mere presence in the race has insured a high profile for the issue that dare not speak it's name.

Hawaiians have voted as liberals for nearly half a century. They have voted conservatively in large numbers just once: against same sex marriage. With that issue on voter's minds, it may contribute to a Bush victory in the state, which could also be the first time Hawaii has ever had an influence on a presidential election.

Andy Blom was Director of Hawaii Right to Life and a political activist and consultant in Hawaii during the same sex campaign. He works as a consultant with Capital City Partners.