As the Republican National Committee retreats to Hawaii this week, it’s worth remembering that the archipelago was once staunchly Republican territory. In fact, it was southern Senate Democrats who blocked its statehood for decades over fears that the minority-majority state would elect two senators who would tip the balance in the civil rights debate. Therefore, Hawaii’s prospects at statehood were tied to Alaska’s, which many thought would be more Democratic. They would only be admitted as a package deal – a modern day Missouri Compromise of sorts. As Hawaii Free Press reporter Ryan Yasukawa explained in a 2009 article, “The state of Hawaii being the 50th state and not the 49th is no coincidence.”
“With a Republican President Eisenhower and Democratic majority in Congress, Democrats first sent an Alaska bill to the president to see if he would sign the bill admitting a state which at the time was expected to elect two Democrat senators. If Eisenhower signed the Alaska bill, a Hawaii bill would be sent up thereafter.”
It was an unjust reality for the island territory. Hawaii had 499,000 people in 1950 (more than Wyoming’s 290,000 or Nevada’s 160,000) while Alaska had only 128,000. “Hawaii also had a competent private sector economy (tourism) while Alaska’s economy was government-dependent,” Michael Barone told me an email. “Nevertheless, Hawaii subordinated its case to Alaska.”
With fervent opposition from leading Democrats such as Sens. William Fulbright (Ark.), Albert Gore Sr. (Tenn.), Sam Ervin (N.C.) and Richard Russell (Ga.), it’s understandable that Hawaii favored Republicans. But Barone explained that southern Democratic segregationalists were not the only reason why Hawaii was traditionally Republican.
Another reason was that New England Yankee missionaries founded the ruling Anglo culture there. Vermonter Hiram Bingham brought the Good Book to the islands in 1820 and translated it into Hawaiian. His grandson, Hiram Bingham III, was born and raised in Hawaii, although he went to Phillips Andover and Yale, and later became U.S. senator from and governor of Connecticut (he also discovered Machu Picchu).
The island was officially annexed by the United States in 1898 by Ohio Republican William McKinley. Over the ensuing decades, a sugar cartel known as the Big Five seized control of all the islands’ economies and propped up a series of white Republican governors and congressional delegates.
It wasn’t until 1954 that Democrats had success there. Labor leader John Burns and longshoreman Harry Bridges teamed up with Japanese American World War II veterans to support Democrats. Honolulu Advertiser reporter Michael Tsai related a story from the book “The Island Edge of America” in a 2009 article about how Hawaii vets used their service as leverage for statehood.
“Chuck Mau, a staunch statehood proponent and delegate to the 1948 Democratic National Convention, talked his way into a meeting of the platform committee and, once there, ingratiated himself to Texas Gov. Lyndon Johnson by retelling the story of how 442nd soldiers had rescued the ‘Lost Battalion’ of the Texas National Guardsmen.”
Hawaii ultimately gained statehood in 1959. “John Kennedy carried it in 1960 by just 115 votes,” notes the Almanac of American Politics. “But from 1962 to 2002, its politics was dominated by a Democratic machine that had its beginning in the 1950s.” Democrats such as Sen. Daniel Inouye became the voice of the islands.
Ronald Reagan won it 1984. Dick Cheney visited in 2004 when polls showed the state in the single-digits in late October, joking to a crowd, “I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I'd drop by and say 'Aloha.’” But in 2008, native Barack Obama made it the bluest state with 72% of the vote. Republicans are optimistic about retaining the governors seat in 2010, but this state is likely going to be as blue as Waimea Bay for the long run.