This weekend, voters in the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI for short) turned out to vote in presidential caucuses. Voters selected Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, awarding small amounts of delegates to each; this might be the last time they are mentioned until 2024. Despite its lesser-known status, however, the CNMI is one of the most fascinating of America’s scattered territories.
The path to the United States
The CNMI wasn’t always separate from Guam. The entire Marianas island chain was claimed by Spain in 1667, causing massive deaths among the indigenous Chamorro population. Spain ceded Guam to the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American War, and the remaining 15 islands were sold to Germany in 1899.
Japan seized the islands from Germany during World War I and were granted control of them as a League of Nations mandate; they would later use them to launch an invasion of Guam. The brutal occupation that followed resulted in many deaths among the Chamorro people of Guam. While the United States liberated both territories during the war, the divide between Guam and the remaining islands only deepened because of it.
The CNMI wanted to reunify with Guam following the war, but Guam rejected the idea in a 1969 referendum. Instead, the CNMI voted in 1975 to join the United States as a separate territory. This agreement became effective in 1986, making them the newest territory in the United States. The islands now have a population of nearly 54,000 people, 89% of which live on the island of Saipan, where the capitol is located.
The Red Island in a Blue Sea
At first glance, the Northern Mariana Islands might seem like a strange place for a Republican stronghold. Guam and American Samoa have been contested by both parties and Hawaii is perhaps the most Democratic state in the country. However, the numbers tell the true story.
As of the most recent elections in 2018, Democrats have no seats in the legislature and didn’t even field candidates for any of the four mayoral offices; their lone territorial-elected officials (Delegate Gregorio Sablan and Attorney General Edward Manibusan) are both officially nonpartisan. At the 2016 presidential caucuses, Republicans won 471 votes in their caucus compared to 189 for the Democrats; in the 2020 caucuses, Republicans had around 300 voters compared to 134 for the Democrats.
It’s no surprise, then, that the 2016 Republican delegates touted the CNMI as the “most Republican territory“. Despite the current Republican dominance, however, the island wasn’t always a one-party state.
The Covenant Party
Benigno Fitial was an odd figure to start his own political movement. The former chairman of the territory’s Republican Party, Fitial left the party in 2001 to run for governor but lost to incumbent Republican Juan Babauta. However, in 2003 he returned to politics by winning a race in the House of Representatives and then unseated Republican Heinz Hofschneider as Speaker.
Fitial ran for governor again in 2005 and won in a four-way race. Fitial beat Hofschneider (now an independent) by 84 votes and around 28% of the vote; Hofschneider and Babauta finished with around 27%, while former conservative Democratic governor Froilan Tenorio finished with 18% of the vote. 82% of the vote went to center-right candidates, so it’s no surprise this is the last election Democrats seriously contested.
Additionally, the Covenant Party broke even with the Republicans in the legislature, even securing a coalition in the Senate. While this might have seemed like the start of a new dominant movement, instead it was their lone bright spot; Fitial rejoined the Republicans in 2011 and the Covenant Party collapsed soon afterward.
Since the dissolution of the Covenant Party, the Republican Party has run CNMI virtually unchecked. Interestingly, the territory has adopted some unusual policy stances relative to national Republicans. The legislature passed new gun control laws, including a ban on handguns that was ultimately struck down by federal court, and marijuana was legalized in 2018.
The Lone Democrats
The Republican dominance on the islands is apparent to all, so how have Sablan and Manibusan managed to win elections? For Sablan, it took a bit of luck. His initial win in 2008 was as an independent in a crowded nine-way race; he won with only 24%, just ahead of three Republican or Covenant-affiliated candidates. Sablan briefly returned to the Democratic Party and won a full term in 2010 with 43% of the vote in a four-way race. He has faced no serious opposition since that victory.
As Delegate, Sablan is perhaps the most influential figure in the territory at a national level. I explained what delegates are in an earlier article, but delegates are non-voting members of the House of Representatives. Although delegates cannot vote on legislation, they can serve on committees and vote on legislation in that capacity.
Manibusan, the former chair of the territorial Democratic Party, was a more recent victory. Despite his efforts to rebuild the party, when he won the office of Attorney General in the 2014 and 2018 elections he did so as an independent. The state Democratic Party itself doesn’t seem to be in any better shape than before Manibusan took over.
The prospects of statehood for the CNMI seem dim, but there are possible alternatives. One solution would be to reunify with Guam, which would create a territory with a population of nearly 220,000 people. This might not be the preferred solution for either territory, but the combined population might make it a viable candidate for statehood, a long-term desire for Guam. On its own, however, the small population of the CNMI would make it unlikely to become a state.
Regardless, while the Northern Mariana Islands might not be the most well-known territory, their story deserves to be known. The islands represent a diverse and vibrant part of American culture. They might be the newest member of the American family, but they might also be the most unique member as well.