May 25, 2018
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Does the GOP convention fiasco doom Charlie Webster as party chairman?

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster at the Maine Republican Convention in May.
By Robert Long, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — In addition to providing impetus for the Republican National Committee to seize control of Maine’s national convention delegate seating process, a 26-page report that portrays the state GOP convention as an embarrassing, chaotic free-for-all prompted questions about leadership and direction within the Maine Republican Party.

As Republicans headed to Tampa, Fla., for a gathering designed to emphasize party unity, schisms between Maine supporters of presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul continue to garner national attention.

Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster called the conflict over seating Maine’s delegates at the Republican National Convention “unfortunate,” but added that “I don’t think it means anything bad” for the party or its chances of winning elections in November.

“A review of the entire record of this matter reveals a state convention riddled with myriad interrelated credentialing problems, ballot security shortcomings and lax security,” the Republican Committee on Contests report states.

The report, based on information gathered in response to a challenge filed by Peter Cianchette and Jan Martens Staples, longtime Maine Republican party leaders and Mitt Romney supporters, identified vast discrepancies in county delegate counts, misidentification of individual delegates and questionable interpretation of rules of order.

After a lengthy description of the committee’s reservations about how the state convention unfolded, the report concludes “the committee is not satisfied that the conduct of the state convention allowed the will of the body to be able to be known and expressed on the election of the … delegates from the state of Maine.”

In the aftermath of the convention, Webster said that party officials had put in place a system for an organized convention.

“Before I turned over the gavel we established a process,” Webster told the Bangor Daily News in May. “We had a checker in each county. We had those folks involved in the tabulation. In my role as chairman of the party, I’m going to go to the Republican National Convention to make sure those votes are counted.”

After the Committee on Contests decision Wednesday, Webster accepted some of the responsibility for problems at the state convention. “I think a lot of the blame [for how the state convention went] is on us at the party,” he said. “We did a terrible job of running the convention and I’m willing to take the blame. There were a lot of mistakes made.”

On Friday, Webster said that Maine Republican Party leaders will “come up with a totally different plan” for future conventions. “It will never happen again,” he said of the confusion at this year’s state convention that carried over into turmoil in Tampa during the days leading to the GOP national convention. “There will be a new committee and there will be a new plan.”

One change Webster suggested Friday would be to cut off registration for the state convention five days or so before the convention to solidify the credentialing process.

Less than an hour after learning Friday that the Republican National Committee’s credentials committee had rejected an appeal by 20 Maine delegates pledged to Paul to be seated, Brent Tweed, who narrowly won election as chairman of this year’s state convention, said the decision was “unfortunate” but that he “will stay involved in the Republican party.”

“It will energize our base,” Tweed said of tea party and anti-establishment Republicans. “I think this will backfire on them.”

Tweed will continue working with the Campaign for Liberty, which he described as an effort to “educate people about the principles of liberty and the free market.” He also intends to help “Republican candidates who support liberty” win election to the state committee.

In December, the Maine Republican Party will elect new officers for two-year terms. On Friday, Webster said he’s willing to continue as chairman. “I love doing this and I don’t mind the controversy,” he said. “If [Republicans] win elections, then I’ll probably stay here and win elections”

Regardless of how Maine Republicans fare in November, Tweed won’t likely nominate Webster for another term as chairman. He praised Gov. Paul LePage for following through on his commitment not to attend the national convention if all of the delegates chosen at the state convention weren’t seated in Tampa. But, Tweed said Webster “waffled,” and he expressed “disappointment that he did not stand by our delegation.”

Webster contests that interpretation, explaining that his admission that he and other Maine Republican Party leaders made mistakes at the convention was part of a strategy to help achieve a compromise that would allow all of the delegates elected in May to be seated.

“I did everything I could to get our delegates seated,” Webster said Friday from Tampa. “Everything changed when they refused compromise.”

Julie Ann O’Brien, former Maine Republican Party executive director, does not believe the convention fiasco should automatically preclude Webster from continuing as chairman.

“I think Charlie Webster is a ‘get on the ground and do what’s needed whenever it’s needed kind of leader,’” she said Friday. “He just needs to surround himself with the right people.”

O’Brien said Republican state convention organizers encountered similar problems with uncredentialed delegates and confusion about rules in 2008.

O’Brien believes that much of the controversy, which she fears will rival Hurricane Isaac for national headlines coming out of Tampa, arises because people who first become involved with politics don’t understand the complex set of rules that applies from town committees through the national committee.

“Most people, particularly very excited new people to the party and to the political process don’t know that there are all these rules and steps,” she said.

Webster described it as passion making political newcomers believe they’ve become experts before familiarizing themselves with what makes the party work.

“There are a number of people within the Ron Paul organization who because they were successful in winning the convention believe they know a lot about running politics,” Webster said “They thought they were smart politically and could muscle the RNC.”

Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, expects the delegate dispute to have little or no effect on the upcoming election. “Faced with a choice of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, the [Paul supporter] will swallow hard and vote for Romney,” he said.

However, Brewer believes the fight over convention delegates will deepen a widening chasm between the aggrieved libertarian wing of the Maine Republican Party and current party leadership through more legislative primaries or in the 2014 campaigns for Congress.

“The animosity is high, and this is going to stoke it higher,” Brewer said Friday. An emerging segment of Maine Republicans who identify themselves as conservative or libertarian will view [the decision not to seat all 20 Paul delegates] as “robbery by the establishment,” he said.

When the controversy over seating Maine’s delegates subsides, the most important outcome will be that “some new folks will stay involved and work to elect Republican candidates,” Webster said. “A lot of Ron Paul people are helping us.”

“I’m not really concerned about how this will adversely affect our election process,” Webster said. “We’ve got a ground game that’s much better than what the Democrats are doing.”

Right now, the ground game for Democrats in Maine involves letting Republicans “fight among themselves while we go out and talk to Mainers about what matters to them,” according to Lizzy Reinholt of the Maine Democratic Party.

The discord within Maine Republican Party ranks “fits a narrative we see around the governor,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said when asked to comment on the GOP delegate dispute. “Voters want everyone in a political party’s public sphere to be competent and not playing games,” he said.

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