Maine GOP caucus process faces criticism

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters at a caucus, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, in Portland.
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters at a caucus, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, in Portland.
Posted Feb. 13, 2012, at 2:50 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Mitt Romney was declared the winner of Maine’s Republican presidential caucuses on Saturday, based on the results of a nonbinding presidential preference poll.

His margin of victory over Ron Paul was 194 votes, according the Maine GOP officials, but not all communities had a chance to caucus prior to Saturday’s announcement.

Washington County Republicans postponed their “super-caucus” scheduled for Saturday because of the threat of inclement weather. Other communities had scheduled their caucuses for later this month.

Some Republicans across the state cried foul. Washington County GOP Chairman Chris Gardner, a Romney supporter, was particularly vocal over the weekend and expressed “complete and utter dismay” to party leaders that his county’s votes would not be counted.

But according to Maine GOP leaders, towns knew well ahead of time that the presidential poll results would be announced on Feb. 11, and had an opportunity to hold their caucuses before that date. Those rules were spelled out months ago, Maine Republican Party Chair Charlie Webster said.

Webster also said that even if Washington County’s votes were counted, they likely would not have swung the pendulum toward Paul. A total of 118 votes were cast in Washington County caucuses in 2008 and only eight of them went for Paul.

Still, Gardner and others are asking the party to reconsider.

“Refusal to reconsider under those circumstances would be extremely disheartening,” he told The Associated Press. “I trust that the party will make the right decision here.”

Kathy Birdsall, GOP town chair for Hancock, said she hopes the state party will consider updating the results. Her town was among several in Hancock County that scheduled caucuses for Feb. 18 and, thus, were not included.

She pointed out that Iowa’s caucus results initially went for Romney only to find out two weeks later that Rick Santorum actually won. That could happen in Maine, too, she said.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect they would include all votes. It would be a slap in the face to towns that weren’t able to caucus,” Birdsall said, adding that she’s not convinced communities were explicitly told that their votes would not be counted if they caucused after Feb. 11.

Hayes Gahagan, Aroostook County Republican chairman and a former state senator, also pushed for a recount once all caucuses have been held.

“Aroostook County went 59 percent in favor of Ron Paul,” he said in a statement Monday. “With the statewide straw poll race so close between Gov. Romney and Congressman Paul, the Maine Republican Party should allow the remaining 16 percent of the straw votes to be counted and reported.

“Regardless of who ultimately wins, we should be conducting free and fair straw polls without succumbing to media opportunism. This is not candidate or agenda-driven; it is matter of process integrity.”

Webster said Monday that he didn’t expect anything to change.

“First of all, the Ron Paul people did a great job,” he said. “‘If Romney hadn’t have come in the last weekend, he might not have won.

“I guess the [state GOP] can rethink this, but the worst thing that could happen is to keep this thing going.”

It’s not clear how much impact did Maine’s caucuses had on the GOP presidential narrative nationally.

Fewer than 6,000 out of more than 250,000 registered Republicans in Maine participated in caucuses statewide. The preference poll was not connected to the selection of caucus delegates, which is the final measure of state support for a candidate.

“If you get down at the most fundamental level, it was solely a media event,” said Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political scientist. “But just because something is staged largely for the media doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Perception is often just as important as reality. The fact that Romney was able to get a win mattered for him.”

National media outlets quickly reported a Maine win for Romney and some pundits said it represented a resurgence for the former front-runner who suffered a string of defeats early last week.

The confusion in Maine could renew calls to change the caucus structure.

Gahagan said this year’s caucuses make “the case for Maine to switch from a caucus state to a primary state.”

Webster said he’s not sure if the Maine GOP will make changes to its caucuses going forward but said he liked the flexibility of a “lazy caucus” spread out over several days.

Maine is not alone this year in facing criticism for its process. Iowa and Nevada were scrutinized for their caucuses as well.

Iowa, the first state to hold caucuses, declared Romney a narrow winner over Santorum on Jan. 3. About two weeks later, after other state contests had been held, the final tally showed Santorum actually edged Romney.

Some national Republicans have called for changes to the antiquated caucus system, Politico reported recently, especially since problems seemed to be magnified when races are close.

States that have held primaries — which mirror elections and don’t feature a lot of the confusing procedural minutiae that caucuses do — have not reported problems.

Brewer said there are stark differences between primaries and caucuses.

“It depends on what you’re after. If you want to get the most people involved and make it easy, you do a primary,” he said. “But if you want to build enthusiasm among base, your most committed partisans, then you choose a caucus.”

Because there were no other states caucusing over the weekend, Maine owned the national political news cycle. Webster said that was good for the state.

Brewer agreed but said some things were overlooked.

“One thing that didn’t get much attention is how well Santorum did here with almost no effort,” he said. Santorum received 18 percent of the vote in Maine, followed by Newt Gingrich with 6 percent.

Another interesting element was the town-by-town breakdown of votes in Maine GOP caucuses that showed a contrast between Romney and Paul supporters.

Affluent bedroom communities like Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth went heavily for Romney. Republicans in cities like Lewiston and Bangor favored Paul, as did those in rural Aroostook County.

The reaction of Gov. Paul LePage also received little attention. His statement on the caucus results included no reference to Romney or any other candidate. The governor has yet to endorse a candidate.

“Republicans from throughout Maine have made their choice known in the GOP presidential nominating contest. It is clear our most pressing problem is the continued need to grow our economy. I am proud that under my governorship the unemployment rate has dropped, but we must do more,” the governor said in a statement.

“Maine is interconnected with other states in our nation and we must tackle this problem at all levels of government. That is why I am confident, when this nominating contest is over and a nominee is chosen, that Maine Republicans will join independents in putting new policies in place in Washington that advance economic growth.”

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