When messages aren’t received
How Guam Democrats managed to retain their edge
By Michael Lujan Bevacqua
For the more erudite of political pundits, Guam is sometimes an arcane sort of electoral barometer. Although Guam has no electoral college votes, it holds a straw poll, or unofficial vote. Since 1984, the winner of Guam’s straw poll for president has won the presidency with the exception of Trump in 2016.
This piece of political trivia is built on the idea that Guam, since it is a day ahead of the U.S., on the other side of the international dateline, can in some way draw out the trends and help predict the national winner the next day.
This political gimmick begs a deeper question of how Guam is impacted or influenced by U.S. politics in general. Does Guam and its own Democratic and Republican parties move in synch with national trends, or do they sometimes resist them or embrace them only after a delay? Guam’s 2022 election provided an important set of data points that we can use in terms of unpacking this issue.
This year’s election was a reminder in many ways that although social media reflects the world and can absolutely influence the world, it is not the world. If you had predicted the outcome of the election of Guam’s next governor solely on Facebook comments on local news stories, you might have assumed that change was going to sweep over the island and all the incumbents, especially the current governor and democratic majority, would be tossed out of office and onto Marine Corps Drive.
With the cost of just about everything rising, the time seemed right for Republicans, with relevant messaging to take control of the legislature at a minimum, even if they were unable to take back Adelup. But instead, Felix Camacho’s opponent, the incumbent Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, handily defeated him and the Democrats retained control the legislature, expanding their majority from 8-7 to 9-6.
As Republicans across the U.S. may be doing some soul-searching after their middling performance in the midterm elections, local Republicans may hope to do the same. As their messaging for the most part appeared disconnected from local voters, in some ways seemed to draw heavily from certain Republican national messaging trends.
Camacho’s early campaign statements that questioned President Joe Biden’s legitimacy as president seemed to preview that some of the more detached-from-reality style rhetoric that has become increasingly more common for Republican candidates stateside, would be an issue here as well. This was compounded by a campaign approach that seemed anachronistic in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the overall zeitgeist for the Republican Party this year seemed to be outrage over the governor’s Covid-19 pandemic policies.
While there may be plenty of calls for change or a new season, so much of the messaging was rooted in ideas of Gov. Leon Guerrero being a tyrant who had stripped away your rights and that you should vote for Republicans as a way of fighting back or taking back your island. This was the messaging during the 2020 election. But back then, the issues were fresher and more relevant. It had helped Republicans chip away at the 10-5 supermajority in the Guam Legislature that Democrats had won in 2018.
In 2022, however, that strategy seemed quaint, but out of place, like outrage in a bottle floating up on Ypao Beach from a distant land.
Gov. Leon Guerrero, her administration and the current Guam Legislature have laid out since last year a series of small and focused public assistance programs, and paid tax refunds faster than anyone could ever remember they’d been paid before.
You could be critical of the timing of everything from aid programs to road improvements as only coming in an election year. But they nonetheless helped deflate the blustery arguments of most Republicans. Rather than wanting to continue to relitigate the past and hold someone accountable for it in electoral terms, it appeared that most simply wanted to move ahead and put the pandemic behind us.
In terms of new faces on the political scene, there was a further contrast between Republicans and Democrats and how they fared in the Guam Legislature. In the past three legislatures, Republicans have only elected two candidates who had not previously served as senators— James Moylan in 2018 and attorney Tom Fischer in this election. By contrast, the Democrats elected four new faces into the legislature this year alone—Chris “Malafunkshun” Barnett, Roy Quinata, Will Parkinson and Dwayne San Nicolas.
This reality is something Republicans have to consider in terms of future sustainability for their brand. In both this and the 2020 elections, with the exception of senator-elect Fischer, the Republicans only re-elected candidates or elected again people such as Jesse Lujan, who served in the legislature more than 10 years ago. It shows that Republican candidates have in recent years appealed to less of the electorate than Democrats, and that newer faces running as Democrats are more likely to be accepted by voters.
In terms of representing Guam in Washington D.C., the Republicans were able to “flip” this seat from blue to red when Sen. James Moylan defeated former Speaker Judi Won Pat.
Moylan’s approach in many ways contrasted with the more generalized approach of Republicans this year. While he was critical of the current governor like his peers, he ran a campaign focused more on connecting to the Republicans in the U.S. in a more establishment sense rather than echoing its more fringe ideological elements.
This year’s election was an important reminder of the maxim “all politics is local.” A candidate’s or a party’s message must be first and foremost relevant to their prospective voters, and relying on national partisan trends to make your case carries risks if it is out of sync with the perspective of your average local voter.