GOP rift puts special election in doubt

Posted Feb. 17, 2011, at 12 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 17, 2011, at 11:33 a.m.

While Republicans in Maine made impressive gains in November, there’s increasing evidence that there are fractures in the party.

The latest example is playing out in a special election to replace Republican Rep. Everett W. McLeod Sr., who died on Dec. 20.

McLeod was well respected and easily won re-election to represent the sprawling 11th District, which includes pieces of Washington, Penobscot and Hancock counties.

With a little more than a week left until the March 1 election, drama festering since January continues to grow.

Three candidates are seeking the seat: Democrat Deanna House of Lee, Republican Beth Turner of Burlington and Republican Phillip Merletti of Lee. Merletti is running as a declared write-in candidate.

Merletti lost in his bid for the Republican nomination, claiming that the hierarchy of the Republican Party is determined to keep him out of the race and that they unconstitutionally manipulated the nominating caucus to make sure someone else won.

Charlie Webster, the party’s state chairman, agrees that the rules and laws around the nominating process should be changed, but says that Merletti is a fringe candidate and a sore loser.

The controversy began as Republicans in the district met to pick their nominee.

Webster, Secretary of State Charles Summers and Republican Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing were in Lee for the caucus. Merletti and a number of other candidates also were there, attempting to make their case for the nomination.

At the end of the day, however, it was determined that arcane party rules meant that most of the Republican voters in Lee could not participate. According to Webster, voters in a number of other towns, including Princeton, also couldn’t participate.

Webster estimates that roughly 20 people voted in the caucus. Turner, McLeod’s hand-picked successor, was the winner.

Merletti thinks that the Republican Party and secretary of state came to Lee, in part, to make sure he didn’t win.

“They took away the people’s constitutional right to vote,” Merletti said. “If they had not stopped the people of Lee from voting, I would have been the candidate. There’s a lot of politics being played and a lot of connivery.”

Webster and Summers maintain they had no idea that there would be any controversy when they made the decision to travel to Lee.

“The law should probably be changed,” Webster said. “Nobody should be boxed out of voting. He’s got a point.”

The rules around caucus participation, Webster said, date back to a different time when more people participated in party politics. That being said, the rules and the law stand. Neither Webster nor Summers see any legitimate reason to change the outcome of the nominating process.

“He ran, and he lost. He doesn’t like that he lost,” Webster said. “Now he’s trying to find a way to be elected.”

Merletti is a self-described constitutionalist and tea party supporter. As a delegate to the Republican State Party Convention, he was among those who pushed a radical rewrite of the Republican Party platform.

Webster says that Merletti has only been a Republican for about a year. “He was a great supporter of the Republican Party until he lost,” Webster said.

For her part, Beth Turner says she has earned the support of McLeod’s family and had been asked by McLeod to run in 2012, when he wouldn’t be on the ballot.

But in 2006, Turner ran for the seat as a Democrat, losing to McLeod 1,785 to 1,234. She says she was only a Democrat for a short time and that she is a fiscal and social conservative.

Turner points to years of experience in local government, where she has served on the school board, board of selectmen and as a municipal clerk. She’s a photographer and currently is the deputy treasurer for Burlington.

Democrat Deanna House is a teacher. Her son, Sgt. Joel A. House, was killed in Iraq in 2007. Along with her husband, she helped to create the House in the Woods, a program that offers respite and support to the families of soldiers who are killed in combat and to wounded veterans.

While McLeod handily won the 11th District, Democrat George Bunker held the seat for a number of years before. Given November’s results, the seat would appear to lean Republican.

The question is whether Merletti attracts enough support from tea party-brand conservatives to affect the race.

In the Maine House, Republicans hold a narrow majority, with 77 seats to 72 for Democrats, with one unenrolled member from Portland.

With the margin so close, every seat matters. For now, the fight is in the 11th.

David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Readers may reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

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