Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii consistently finds herself listed among young Democrats to watch, but a sudden swirl of controversy has observers back home starting to wonder if one of the party’s fastest-rising stars flew too close to the sun.
Gabbard has gained prominence by her willingness to buck leadership, whether by challenging better-known candidates in her early races, criticizing President Obama’s approach to ISIS, or backing Bernie Sanders and resigning a national party post during the primaries.
But in recent weeks, strategists said speculation that Gabbard could join the Trump administration and a trip in which she met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have raised questions about her political future and aspirations. Hawaii Democrats said voters back home are paying attention.
“Out of all of the issues that have gotten her in the news so far, this is the most coverage she’s ever gotten on any single issue or incident,” said state Sen. Stanley Chang, who like Gabbard was elected to the Honolulu City Council in 2010.
Hawaii news sources echoed the tone of several Democrats who privately discussed the trip with National Journal: confusion and frustration. The Maui News editorial board wrote that it was “baffled” by Gabbard’s actions, and the Honolulu Civil Beat wrote that she had “crossed the line with a secret trip to Syria.” And on Sunday, a Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist criticized Gabbard for comparing her trip with the late Rep. Patsy Mink’s meetings at the Paris Peace Talks during the Vietnam War.
“Things like that can come back and haunt her next year,” said one Hawaii Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Chang, whose comments aligned with those of Democratic strategists in the state, said that the unusual circumstances surrounding the trip coincided with Trump’s election and the rise of a progressive activist corps in Hawaii to “create a lot of interest in the community” about the trip.
Even if the controversy over the trip dies down, observers said it raised an important question about Gabbard’s future: Can her go-it-alone approach to politics translate in an era when Democrats around the country seem increasingly united behind an anti-Trump movement?
Though she has remained popular at home while splitting with Obama and national Democrats over a variety of issues, some argued that the fervent anti-Trump energy within the Democratic Party could make it increasingly difficult for Gabbard to continue on her current course without backlash from a deep-blue Hawaii electorate.
“People have a lot less patience for Democrats who are not going to present a united front, particularly people who style themselves as progressive Democrats,” said Colin Moore, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii and director of the school’s public policy center. “This resonates back home. The cost there is she won’t be considered a trustworthy ally for the national Democratic Party.”
Gabbard, 35, whose father has been a state senator for the past 10 years, made a name for herself in 2002 by becoming the youngest woman ever elected to the Hawaii state House. Since then, she voluntarily deployed to Iraq in 2006 as a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard, won a city council seat, and in 2012 topped a former Honolulu mayor in the Democratic primary for a seat in Congress.
Gabbard spokeswoman Emily Latimer said the lawmaker’s deployments in the Middle East and her desire to influence U.S. foreign policy were motivating factors behind her initial run for Congress. And Gabbard, Latimer said, “has received an outpouring of support in Hawaii for her recent visit to Syria and her continued work to pass the Stop Arming Terrorists Act,” which would crack down on American funds being used to equip or assist certain groups, including ISIS and al-Qaida.
Gabbard remains a political force to be reckoned with on the island, with a strong personal brand and more than $2 million in her campaign account. But her proponents and detractors are closely watching both her handling of the Syria trip and her relationship with Trump, with an eye toward her yet-uncertain but much-talked-about political future.
David Nir, the political director of Daily Kos, an election blog and force for online progressive organizing, recently called for Gabbard to face a primary challenge in response to the Syria trip. In an email with National Journal, Nir said Gabbard is “going to have to answer to her constituents when they ask her why she hasn’t been on the front lines fighting Trump. … A challenger who can put resistance to Trump front and center could cause real problems for Gabbard.”
Other observers said they think Gabbard is likely safe for reelection, both because of her own strong brand and a dearth of potentially strong opponents with demonstrated interest in the job. In 2016, a progressive primary challenger failed to catch fire.
But strategists all agreed her actions could complicate advancement—particularly a potential primary challenge to Sen. Mazie Hirono in 2018, which is a constant subject of speculation among Hawaii Democrats—in part because she is so willing to flout established norms and hierarchies.
“The risk is that she won’t be able to effectively challenge Mazie Hirono—that’s always the rumor in Hawaii,” said Moore. “She is jeopardizing that, I think.”
One Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly said that while these issues might not do much to damage Gabbard’s popularity in the short term, winning a potential primary against another Democrat in the state requires “not committing mistakes that a skilled opponent can project out into the world.”
Now, Moore said, the question is whether Gabbard can right the ship in a way that puts her back on the path to career advancement, or whether she could, ultimately, “crash and burn.”
“I think she sees [her independence] as her strength,” Moore said. “I don’t know how long that can last, though. Nobody really knows, but everybody does know she’s not going to end her career as the representative of Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.”
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